After Norris employees were potentially exposed to COVID-19, University workers, advocates call for transparency, protocol changes

The+backside+of+the+Weber+Arch+against+a+sunset.+The+arch+is+framed+with+trees.

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

The Weber Arch. After a Norris employee tested positive for COVID-19, community members and employees are calling for policy changes and transparency.

Jacob Fulton and Jason Beeferman

After a Norris University Center employee tested positive for COVID-19, coworkers said management never informed them of the risk of exposure. They also said that neither Northwestern nor its food service provider Compass Group has provided workers with enough built-in COVID-19 testing access until this week.

University and Compass Group spokespeople confirmed to The Daily that an employee at Norris tested positive for COVID-19 on May 16. A Norris employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said she and her coworkers weren’t informed of the positive case by the store’s management. They only found out eight days later, when the employee who tested positive reached out themselves. 

Contact tracing at NU is done by a team of University employees, who reach out to close contacts of people with positive test results to notify them of potential exposure. Both spokespeople said the employee’s close contacts were traced and notified, but that contact list only included one other Norris employee. 

Weinberg sophomore Neva Lagallet, a member of Students Organizing for Labor Rights, said University protocols as they currently exist aren’t sufficient support for NU dining workers. 

“What happened recently is just a function of the workers not having regular access to testing,” Lagallet said. “They also are not paid for quarantine or isolation periods. And that puts a huge financial burden on a lot of families who live paycheck to paycheck.”

The University doesn’t require regular testing for any employees, including those subcontracted through outside organizations like Compass, University spokesperson Jon Yates said in a statement to The Daily. 

Yates said NU will help provide testing services for employees who notify the University they are having difficulties accessing COVID-19 testing. All employees are also eligible to receive the Abbott BinaxNOW over-the-counter rapid tests NU began distributing this week.

However, there are more issues than just limited clarity around testing access, employees and community advocates said. They criticized the store for a lack of transparency surrounding the positive COVID-19 test. 

“People, once they found out, were very upset, and they didn’t want to show up to work,” the anonymous worker told The Daily. “It’s just like, ‘Oh, you want to expose us and our family members because you guys want to keep the business running,’ which I thought was ridiculous.”

Additionally, University employees aren’t getting consistent testing from NU, the employee said. This provides another layer of difficulty for employees looking to receive test results and protect themselves and their families from the virus. 

SESP senior Rachel Kwak, a  SOLR member, said this treatment is indicative of the University’s devaluation of its employees. She said NU sees its employees as “expendable,” even though their lives and livelihoods are at stake during the middle of a pandemic. 

SOLR has served as a mouthpiece for University service workers, especially throughout the pandemic, Kwak said, as NU hasn’t addressed many workers’ concerns. 

Collective organizing has resulted in some change, she said, but access to free COVID-19 testing through the University has been a longtime priority of the group, and has still not been implemented. As a result, Kwak said NU is continuing to put its workers at risk. 

“How is this institution capable of handing out thousands of COVID tests for students, and implementing insurance and putting out all these policies, and, making this whole elaborate system so that students can be COVID-safe, but they can’t do a tenth of that for their workers who like allow Northwestern to function on a day to day basis?” Kwak said. 

Yunkyo Kim contributed reporting. 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @jacobnfulton

Related Stories:

Surprise shots, limited slots: Northwestern students seek last-minute Pfizer vaccines in Norris

Q&A: Chief Risk, Compliance Officer Luke Figora talks vaccine distribution, testing, ‘new normal’ for Northwestern

Northwestern’s contact tracing system falls through the cracks