Letter to the Editor: SOLR condemns service worker layoffs, demands worker protection and administrative pay cuts

Last Monday, Compass Group laid off 230 dining employees who have been furloughed since March, about 40 percent of the total Compass employees at Northwestern. Their health insurance coverage will end on Sept. 20. Students Organizing for Labor Rights learned that some workers found out only after they had been fired over the phone, and the workers’ union told us that Compass sent out a news release announcing the layoffs before contacting the union or workers. 

Since March, we’ve demanded that the University protect workers and compensate them for the wages they would have received during Spring Quarter and Summer Session. Instead of meeting our demands, Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Craig Johnson and Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier sent vague statements to Northwestern community members over email (March 30, April 16) with empty promises to compensate workers — yet they reneged on the only deal to pay workers they had formulated. Many Compass workers have not received any money from the University since it sent students off-campus for remote learning.

During Spring Quarter, these administrators promised they would “leverage the federal stimulus package” to ensure all workers received benefits and compensation equal to their full-time status for the quarter’s duration. They willfully ignored that not all workers qualified to receive federal aid through stimulus checks or unemployment aid. Federal unemployment aid totaling $600 per week is ending this weekend. Laid off workers will also stop receiving health insurance coverage on September 20.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northwestern and Compass abandoned workers. Now, they are doing so again. 

This is unacceptable.

Northwestern’s actions in recent months and in the past week show that they are not committed to supporting all members of their community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unacceptable that the University laid off nearly half of its service workers and left them without health insurance during a pandemic, especially at a time when federal unemployment benefits are being cut. We adamantly condemn the University’s actions and treatment of its essential workers and demand they do better. 

In a statement published on March 30 about supporting food service workers at NU, Johnson and Payne-Kirchmeier stated that their “goal is to provide as much stability and continuity as possible during these uncertain times. Supporting these key members of our University community is a critically important piece of that effort.”

In this same statement, Johnson and Payne-Kirchmeier claimed that they “are committed to communicating with (Northwestern community members) as decisions are made.” Now, Northwestern has further demonstrated their lack of commitment to supporting their essential workers as they abruptly fire hundreds of workers over the phone and fail to communicate this to community members, including the workers themselves and their union. 

In another statement on May 11, University President Morton Schapiro, Interim Provost Kathleen Hagerty and Johnson explained how the pandemic affected Northwestern’s financial situation and what it was doing to combat the shortfalls. They claimed to “prioritize the well-being of our people” and said that “the financial burden must be shared broadly.” Northwestern’s “financial burden” fell heavily on the around 250 furloughed dining staff, with this round of layoffs exacerbating undue stress for many of them. Throughout Spring Quarter, workers struggled to pay for rent, utilities, health care, groceries and child care. Many workers felt forced to search for other work, placing themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19. It is clear that Northwestern and its administrators have no regard for workers’ well-being and do not know what it means to share burdens.

In that same email, Schapiro claimed to make the “painful decision” to furlough hundreds of service workers while he and other administrators experienced only a 20 percent pay cut to their multi-million dollar salaries. According to publicly available tax filings, Schapiro makes at least $2 million a year in his role as president alone — a 20 percent pay cut would mean he will continue to make at least $1.6 million annually. Service workers making $15 an hour, working 40-hour weeks and 50 weeks a year, would make roughly $30,000 annually — 1.5 percent of what the president “earns.” If Schapiro and other administrators truly want to “share the financial burden,” then he should reduce his pay to that of a service worker to redistribute the University’s money toward service workers, other underpaid staff and student workers. 

Other schools are paying their workers, why aren’t we?

Northwestern has an endowment of around $10 billion, yet it failed to pay service workers throughout Spring Quarter. Other universities with smaller endowments paid service workers throughout their spring term, including the University of Chicago ($8.5 billion), Georgetown University ($1.8 billion), and Washington University in St. Louis ($8.1 billion).

While Northwestern typically draws 5 percent annually from its endowment, it drew 6 percent during the budget deficit in 2019, indicating its ability to draw more finances from the endowment when it sees fit. In their statement on May 11, Schapiro and other administrators stated that they “will temporarily increase the rate at which (they) draw from our endowment.” Since the University has already started drawing more from its endowment, there is no ethical or logistical reason why it cannot continue doing so to meet our preliminary demands listed below.

We are experiencing a once-in-a-century global pandemic; now is the time to tap into the school’s massive endowment to provide support for our community members. What does it reveal about our University’s values and priorities if this does not constitute an emergency situation? Northwestern leaders claim to believe that service workers are an “integral part of the Northwestern community,” yet their actions do not reflect this. If our leaders want to “provide as much support for future generations as for this one,” then they need to actually support this one, and that includes supporting service workers.

Preliminary demands

Given the precarity of the situation and the above facts, we demand that Northwestern use all possible methods at its disposal to:

  • Uphold its initial promise to pay all furloughed workers for lost wages during Spring Quarter;
  • Provide health insurance coverage for terminated workers through the end of the year or until they find new health insurance;
  • Provide stipends of at least $600 a week to match the federal unemployment aid ending this month;
  • Commit to helping all terminated workers with transitioning to new jobs in or around the Evanston area;
  • Cut President Schapiro and all administrators’ salaries to the level of a full-time service worker, which is around $30,000 a year; and
  • Match at least the amount of money that SOLR has raised and distribute it to workers in need.

If you are a concerned student, staff, faculty or community member, please consider donating to our emergency fund through PayPal (SOLRNU) or Venmo (@SOLR_NU). You can keep up with us by following our Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. If you would like to learn more about SOLR, please fill out this form.