Salah Bouacha worked at Northwestern for 29 years. In 1991, he started with the cleaning crew at the Allen Center, and eventually worked his way up to Lead Program Assistant at The Allen Center. Then, on April 7, he was furloughed.
Since then, the only times he was called into work were two days in August. On the one day he was called in during September, Bouacha was told he was permanently laid off.
“I really enjoyed it so much,” Bouacha says. “I do like the work environment. It’s like a family environment where everybody knows everybody. The culture is really great. We have a lot of connections going on. The culture is really overwhelming in terms of the kind of love and collaborations that were going on at the Allen Center. To be honest with you, working at the Allen Center was one of the best experiences [I] ever lived.”
While he understands the school’s circumstances, Bouacha says that since the pandemic, Northwestern’s communication has been inconsistent and ambiguous. Mack Chapman, a Chapin security guard laid off in April, says he has also struggled with the lack of communication from Northwestern and Compass.
Chapman was originally told he would be returning to Northwestern on Sept. 4. However, as the date got closer, they pushed it back again. Believing he would be starting work again on Sept. 11, Chapman quit the job he had at a Jewel-Osco distribution center. Yet, the night before he was expecting to begin, Chapman got a call from the University saying they would no longer need him for the entire academic year.
“A lot of people had quit the jobs that they were with to come back because we thought we were going to be starting back up on Friday, Sept. 11,” Chapman says. “They basically pulled out of the whole deal literally the night before we were scheduled to start back. That, to me, was kind of disrespectful.”
Fortunately, Chapman says he was able to get his job at Jewel-Osco back because he had a good relationship with his manager, but not all employees who had quit their respective jobs were as lucky. He says that some other employees had to find new jobs because they had already quit and couldn’t come back.
As a shop steward, Bouacha has a heightened amount of responsibility to help the other workers. A shop steward works as the representative of the workers to both management and the union, UNITE HERE Local 1. Bouacha has been in the volunteer position for almost six years now. He says that he stepped into the volunteer role because he had been working at Northwestern for so many years, so he understood the dynamics of the workplace.
“[As a shop steward] you know the employees,” Bouacha says. “You know what their expectations are, what their needs are. You have to take that to the union and say ‘These are our issues; can we sit down and resolve this? You are not just living your experience and your story, you are living other peoples’ stories.”
Before the pandemic, Bouacha had never gone more than three weeks without working. But now, he has found himself without a stable job for more than six months. He says that he is hesitant to look for a new job because he might be called back into work.
“You know the anxiety of doing nothing, just the whole day you have to think about your situation,” Bouacha says. “It’s something that’s really stressful and depressing to me, but I have no choice but to live it and make sure I get through it and help as many employees as I can. You just have to come to terms with it and wish for the best.”
Bouacha added that some employees were unable to receive unemployment, so they have been struggling to be able to pay for their daily needs, like rent, car payments and groceries.
“You can’t help but think about it all the time,” Bouacha says. “It’s really hard to be honest with you. I don’t want to be in this position right now, but I have no choice but to help my coworkers go through this. It’s heartbreaking getting calls from employees. Some of them are crying on the phone that they need help and nobody can help them, except for the students.They were overwhelmed. They couldn’t even hold it.”
In an April 16 email, President Morton Schapiro said Northwestern partnered with Compass Group (the dining workers’ employer) to use the federal relief package to ensure that all hourly food service workers receive benefits and compensation equal to what they would have received were they working full-time spring quarter.
However, UNITE HERE Local 1 lead research analyst Noah Carson-Nelson says Northwestern has followed through with virtually none of their promises. He says no Compass workers received any income during the spring quarter after they were laid off, though Compass paid for health insurance until the end of October.
UNITE HERE Local 1 is a union that represents dining hall workers and hospitality workers who work for Compass at Northwestern. Currently, they represent about 450 workers in the dining halls, Kellogg and the Allen Center.
“When we surveyed our members, dozens of people said they hadn’t been able to adequately provide food for their families when they were laid off,” Carson-Nelson says. “There were delays in getting unemployment. It very quickly proved that living paycheck to paycheck in the middle of a pandemic is deadly.”
Carson-Nelson says that UNITE HERE Local 1 continued campaigning for Northwestern and Compass to figure out how to close the wage gap in terms of what people had expected to earn in the Spring Quarter.
“The terms and conditions of the associates’ employment are governed by Compass’ contract with UNITE HERE Local 1. Wages, health insurance and so on are dictated by that contract, which the union itself negotiated with prior dining vendors,” Compass Group Managing Director Eric Herman says. “We’re currently negotiating a new contract with UNITE HERE Local 1. We look forward to reaching a fair and equitable agreement with them soon.”
Francisco Pineda, who worked in the maintenance department for 35 years, faces a similar situation as Bouacha. On March 20, Northwestern called him to say that starting the following day, they would no longer need him until further notice. After not working for almost five months, Pineda was called into work again for a couple days a week.
Since having his hours severely reduced, Pineda has had to make adjustments to his life, including buying less food and using less gas. His wife, who worked in the Northwestern laundry department, was also laid off in March. She has not worked a day since.
Bouacha says the University did provide a few opportunities for free grocery pickups in April where workers could come get canned foods and fruits and vegetables, although there has since been no further assistance.
Bouacha stressed his gratitude to the students for all the help they have provided. He says many employees, including himself, are very grateful for the money students raised and different initiatives put on by SOLR. He says that workers greatly appreciated students’ efforts to distribute food and provide financial assistance for rent and daily expenses.
Since the pandemic hit, there has been confusion about the school’s endowment and what it actually serves for. In an email President Schapiro sent to students on April 16, he stated that due to the hits the financial market has taken, the value of the school’s endowment has decreased, along with a reduction in endowment payments that go toward the school’s operating budget.
At the time this email was sent out, students worried about what this would mean for the service workers and all the other people the University supports financially. However, the email mainly focused on the importance of protecting the endowment.
In response to questions regarding why the $11 billion endowment couldn’t be utilized during these difficult times, Schapiro explained that “endowed funds tend to be restricted for specific purposes and a portion of them are allocated to illiquid investments that are not easy to unwind to support current spending needs … The endowment was not established to fix budget shortfalls or manage crises, but rather to provide key resources needed to preserve our mission of academic excellence and research eminence far into the future.”
However, in a May 11 email Schapiro, stated that the University would “temporarily increase the rate at which we draw from our endowment.”
Both the budget and the endowment are discussed by administration and students alike, though there seems to be a one-sided understanding of what the two can provide. Even though many refer to the endowment as the “rainy day fund,” COVID-19’s effect on service workers is not sufficient enough for the University to pull from the endowment as it does not serve to provide support to the budget.
As of May 11, the school had furloughed about 250 staff members due to a decline in the 2020 fiscal year budget, according to an email from Schapiro.
In a “Minutes of the Faculty Senate” video conference on May 13, Senior Vice President Craig Johnson stated that the University’s original plan was to furlough about 1,000 employees but instead chose to put a halt to retirement matching, meaning the University would pause contributing to employees’ retirement savings. He also added that the University “planned to have a break even budget with a potential draw of $25 million from the endowment.”
However, this “break-even budget” was not going to come without severe cuts. Former Northwestern spokesman Bob Rowley told Crain's Chicago Business that the school expected to cut 150-200 employees through a buyout program. The offer only applied to employees who had worked at the University for a minimum of two years and had been eligible for benefits during that time. This buyout program was in addition to the 250 people furloughed.
Most recently, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that despite Northwestern originally expecting a $92 million shortfall, the school now expects a budget surplus. Schapiro told Crain’s that the school was not hit as hard as the university anticipated.
Under the workers’ contracts with Compass, they were able to keep their health insurance through Oct. 31. However, many workers will be without health coverage until it is reinstated on January 1, according to SOLR member and Weinberg third-year Abbey Zhu. She says beginning Jan. 1, workers — regardless of being rehired — will have the option to pay about $59 a month for their insurance coverage.
Zhu worries about workers paying out of pocket for insurance, especially during a pandemic, adding that the workers who were rehired have less covid protections than they did in the spring. Workers in the spring received hazard pay (extra pay for working under dangerous conditions), quarantine pay (pay when workers are quarenting and can’t come to work) and were under a fair attendance policy. Zhu says Compass eliminated these benefits on Sep. 1.
As of May, SOLR had raised about $20,000 for the workers. Now, the club has fundraised around $70,000. Zhu says funds have fallen so short due to the amount of workers they have helped, that the club has had to close their fund request form that workers use. SOLR originally had a Google form available in four languages for service workers to submit a request for financial assistance. However, the club is currently only collecting workers’ contact information so that it can contact workers when they have the funds to support them again.
“I’ve just been really frustrated that a small group of undergraduate students is worrying and thinking about things that should be the University and Compass's jobs as multibillion dollar corporations,” Zhu says.
On July 26, SOLR also wrote a letter to the editor in The Daily Northwestern demanding that Northwestern pay workers for wages they would have received over spring quarter and continue financial support. SOLR also asked the administration for a town hall, but the club never got a response.
“Even though we’re not the worker’s union, as students we still have power in pressuring administrators to take care of workers and pressuring the Board of Trustees to take care of workers,” Zhu says. “It’s just blatant neglect from Northwestern and a refusal to meet their responsibility to care for workers and support them through thesis pandemic. Instead they want to hoard their wealth for this mythical endowment.”
At the time of NBN’s interview with Chapman, Northwestern had not called back many members of the security staff. Recently, Northwestern has called most of those who work as Chief Security Officers at the dorms back for work.
“Fortunately, due to the higher number of students that returned to campus for the winter quarter, we were able to call back 97% of associates who worked in the dining commons and retail units that directly serve the undergraduate community,” Herman says. “Our hearts go out to associates who’ve been impacted by this pandemic. This has been a struggle for families and businesses everywhere.”