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Students, union say Stanford refusing to honor pledge to help displaced contract workers

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Student activists and union leaders say Stanford University is reneging on a promise to help laid-off janitors and dining staffers employed by independent contractors.

The private university in California is reeling from lost revenue, increased costs and a market downturn, like all of higher education. Despite the grim fiscal landscape, Stanford last week pledged support for its workforce.

"With the reduction in on-campus activities, the need for work performed by many of these contract firms has been significantly reduced," Stanford Provost Persis Drell wrote to the university community on April 14, adding that "we will support these contract firms in maintaining income and benefits through June 15 for their employees who normally provide services at Stanford."

Student activists say Stanford has fallen short of that commitment. Instead of paying subcontracted staffers through the end of the semester, the university is only guaranteeing health benefits to janitors, according to United Service Workers West, which is part of the Service Employees International Union and represents the custodians and dining workers.

"This is a blatantly dishonest move," said Ethan Chua, a senior and member of Stanford Students for Workers' Rights. "I do not know for the life of me why a university with a $27 billion endowment can't make this commitment."

Stanford did not provide comment beyond the April 14 letter.

On Thursday, student organizers held a news conference that included laid-off workers, union representatives and alumni urging Stanford to step up for some of the most vulnerable members of the university community.

"All of us have an obligation to do what we can to help each other out. That includes big institutions, powerful institutions like Stanford University," Julián Castro, an alumnus and former Democratic presidential candidate, said on a call with reporters Thursday. "There are a lot of people hurting out there right now. Stanford has an obligation to do its best with its ... endowment."

Organizers are calling on the senior class and alumni to withhold donations to the university until the administration agrees to extend pay through June 15 to nearly 200 subcontracted custodians and chefs who had been laid off since last month. They are also requesting hazard pay for contract workers who are still on campus and two weeks of additional paid sick leave.

Stanford has been at odds with student activists over the treatment of displaced service staffers since the university canceled in-person classes in March. Students collected 5,400 signatures on a petition imploring the school to pay the workers and raised $250,000 to provide emergency relief.

The university first said it could not afford to help. The provost and the president have taken 20 percent pay cuts and said the university anticipates a $200 million shortfall. But Stanford appeared to have a change of heart.

Chua said he was skeptical of the provost's statement because it seemed ambiguous. He also found it odd that the university chose to inform students and faculty members of its decision, not the workers or their union.

Denise Solis of SEIU-USWW said the union never received any commitment from Stanford, despite repeatedly inquiring. UG-2, which employs the custodians, told the union about the health coverage. While Stanford is under no legal obligation to pay subcontracted workers, Solis argues the university has tremendous power and resources to help.

"They have the means to do what is right for those men and women on their campus," Solis said on a call with reporters Thursday. "Rent is coming up the first of the month, and they will have already been a month without work. This is not just about those workers - it is their families."

Alex Garcia, a custodian at Stanford who was laid off, expressed disappointment with the lack of communication from the university.

"We care about Stanford the way Stanford should care about us, not only as employees but as humans, too," Garcia said on the call Thursday.

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