Following petitions and social media campaigns launched by students, Penn decided to pay laid-off workers for the rest of the semester — but student activists say their work is not done yet.
Though the Penn community praised the University's decision to pay the subcontracted workers, students and faculty say Penn must continue to be held accountable for paying workers this semester and should reconsider the companies from which they subcontract.
Penn announced on Monday that it would pay both University-employed dining hall staff and Bon Appétit Management Company's staff in retail dining cafes and Falk Dining Commons through May 15. The decision came after Bon Appétit planned to lay off approximately 140 workers at the end of March without pay. A petition calling on the University and Bon Appétit to pay retail dining workers has since gained over 8,000 signatures.
Falk Dining Commons chef Troy Harris said he was surprised and heartened by the number of people that signed the petition. Harris added that he was especially grateful for the Hillel community, who raised money for through a campaign to support Falk Dining workers. He added that some students have called him to offer a word of support to him and his family.
“Even though I knew that we fought for a good cause, I didn't know many people were gonna come out and support us, and that was ground-moving,” Harris said.
Harris said because of the University's decision to continue funding his wages, he can keep health insurance for his family. Harris said his wages from working at Falk Dining Commons primarily cover his health insurance.
Student Labor Action Project member and College junior Amanpreet Singh, who organized the petition, praised the University's decision to pay laid-off dining workers but wants to continue to hold the University accountable by making sure payments are made to dining staff. Singh said it is particularly important to do so, because these laid-off dining workers are subcontracted employees who Penn is not typically responsible for paying themselves.
“I want people to know that this is not the end,” Singh said.
Falk Dining Commons chef Kareem Wallace said Bon Appétit staff will be compensated for 35 hours of work per week for the rest of the semester. He said, however, that some workers like himself work more than that, typically recording 40 hours a week in the dining hall. Wallace said he is still grateful for the compensation because "it could have been a lot worse."
English department chair and Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Humanities Paul Saint-Amour said he and other tenured faculty began writing an open letter calling on the University to pay workers before Penn made the announcement on Monday. Saint-Amour said the letter gained approximately 160 signatures from tenured and tenure-track faculty in approximately 24 hours.
“We felt at a minimum that the University ought to honor the contracts and not just essentially pull the rug out from under these workers, regardless of whether they are permanent Penn employees or contract workers,” Saint-Amour said.
Singh said a SLAP fundraiser for laid-off workers raised approximately $2,200. SLAP is currently discussing with the dining workers how to use the funds, she added.
SLAP member and College senior Ella Bei said SLAP also started an Instagram campaign to have students request money from Penn on Venmo, a mobile payment service, to pay the workers, then post a screenshot on Instagram with the hashtag #PennPayUp. Bei said SLAP thinks this campaign helped make the community more aware of the issue.“It's important to continue this work and to make sure that we're still holding our institutions accountable,” Singh said.
Singh said Penn students' push for laid-off workers to receive pay reflects a national trend of students calling on universities to pay workers after campuses closed due to coronavirus. Harvard University announced on Friday that it would pay employees and contracted workers through May 28.
“I think the university should think about whether it wants to continue partnering with businesses that are willing to liquidate contracts the way Bon Appétit did," Saint-Amour said.