Falk Dining Commons chef Troy Harris and his wife had their lives upended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Harris, a beloved chef at Penn’s kosher dining hall, was laid off by his employer Bon Appétit Management Company in mid-March when Penn’s campus depopulated in efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. His wife, Debra Harris, was also terminated from her job as a dietary aide at a nursing home shortly afterwards.
The couple spent the past four months taking care of their paraplegic son and babysitting their grandchildren while their daughter serves as an essential worker. The family is dependent on Harris’s biweekly unemployment benefits.
Harris said he must return to work, despite concerns about potentially exposing his family to the virus. He is particularly worried about infecting his son, who has one lung and follows a machine-driven regimented breathing treatment three times per day after a shooting accident in March 2018.
If he had decided not to return to work this fall, his unemployment benefits would have been cut off when Penn’s dining halls reopen on Aug. 23.
Harris, who has worked at Falk Dining Commons for 20 years, has worked out an arrangement with Bon Appétit to work three days per week, so he can can continue to help his wife take care of their grandchildren and son during the pandemic.
On July 20, Bon Appétit Management Company — the food service company that staffs Penn’s retail dining locations and Falk Dining Commons — sent a letter to all employees assigned to work in Houston Market, Falk Dining Hall, and Accenture Café requesting they contact Bon Appétit by July 31 to confirm they will be returning to work at Penn in the fall. Bon Appétit will assume that anyone who did not respond is not interested in returning, according to its letter.
“Please be advised that failure to respond to this memo by July 31, 2020, may negatively impact your unemployment benefits,” the letter reads.
The objective of the letter was to begin a conversation with the company's employees, Bon Appétit representatives wrote in an email sent to The Daily Pennsylvanian on July 27.
“The Bon Appétit team understands that some employees have life circumstances that may cause them trepidation about returning to work,” Bon Appétit wrote. Employees may qualify for Family and Medical Leave of Absence, however, they would not be paid for their time away from the job.
Some Bon Appétit employees said they do not feel like they have the ability to decline the return offer, despite their safety concerns.
“It’s almost like, you know, they call us back to work and we don’t really have a choice not to go back,” Falk Dining Commons Chef Elijah Wingate said.
According to state law, if an employee declines an offer to return to work they are no longer eligible for unemployment compensation. But some Bon Appétit employees said they do not have the means to survive without either form of compensation.
Harris, who serves as a direct link between workers and the union as shop steward, said the shop stewards are asking for hazard pay for all Bon Appétit employees.
“[The shop stewards] are all talking about if you have to come out and risk your family. It should be worth something,” Harris said. “I don’t make enough even if I do get sick to quarantine and take care of my family.”
Bon Appétit representatives wrote to the DP on July 29 that eligibility for hazard pay is defined by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On July 30, the company confirmed that it is in the process of applying to Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 Hazard Pay Grant Program, a $50 million grant program that helps employers provide hazard pay to workers in life-sustaining occupations — which includes food retail facilities — during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wingate said that though he has not received any updates from Bon Appétit or the union, Local 929, about the question of hazard pay, he will ultimately have to return to work regardless of the answer.
“I have a family to feed,” Wingate said.
The relationship between Bon Appétit and its employees on Penn’s campus is already strained after Bon Appétit laid off the staff in mid-March. The University ultimately covered the employees’ wages until May 15 in response to a student-led petition garnering over 8,300 signatures.
“There’s a lack of unemployment everywhere, but it’s just harder doing it for a company that really, really didn’t have your back when the pandemic started and now you in it with them again,” Harris said. “How much more they gonna have your back if you get sick?”
Safety precautions for Bon Appetit employees will include masks and gloves, physical distancing, a health reporting agreement with all workers, increased cleaning frequency, and protective barriers for cashiers, Bon Appétit representatives wrote in an email to the DP on July 27.
"We want to emphasize that keeping our employees safe while serving the Penn community is our top priority," Bon Appétit wrote.
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