The moves come as Harvard seeks to reduce costs through clerical staff buyouts, which officials hinted could be followed by layoffs as the University grapples with a dramatic reduction in the value of its endowment.
American Cleaning Company—a subcontractor that services Harvard Medical School—has been told by HMS custodial directors that it will have to lose 13 of its 27 workers by April 1.
OneSource, another subcontractor that cleans properties administered by Harvard Real Estate Services—which leases and manages housing for University affiliates—has been asked by Harvard to cut contract costs by 30 to 40 percent, according to University spokesman Kevin Galvin.
Because of low overhead costs in the custodial industry, the request is likely to translate into hefty staff reductions at OneSource as well, although Harvard has not explicitly directed OneSource to reduce staff, said Daniel B. Becker, an organizer for Service Employees International Union Local 615.
Galvin said Harvard notified SEIU 615—which represents the custodians—of the planned cuts in January. The University later decided to delay the layoffs until April to allow SEIU to discuss the reductions.
According to Becker, the SEIU has "heard that a host of other layoffs lay looming [at Harvard], and not just for the janitorial staff."
American Cleaning Company general manager Henry Valerio said HMS custodial services requested he provide a roster of his workers, listed by seniority, from which they could choose 13 workers to lay off. Valerio said he is not yet sure which workers will be laid off.
HMS also employs 13 custodial workers directly, but these employees will not be affected by the cuts, according to Becker. SEIU represents nearly all of Harvard's 1,000 janitors and security personnel, many of whom are indirectly employed through subcontractors.
Harvard spokesman Galvin said the cuts are the result of the "unprecedented fiscal situation [at] Harvard" that is forcing the University to scrutinize its operating costs and capital construction plans.
He added that in addition to pursuing personnel cuts, HMS and HRES custodial directors have reexamined the frequency with which offices and building spaces are cleaned. While highly visible areas such as labs and washrooms will continue to be cleaned each day, other locations—such as offices, stairwells, and common spaces—may only be cleaned twice a week or weekly.
Becker said that SEIU is working closely with other unions and students to craft a response to the cuts, and that Harvard should avoid such practices because of its wealth and non-profit status.
"We understand that times are tough, but Harvard has the money," he said.
SEIU 615, which represents 16,000 workers throughout New England, has long advocated for living wages for janitorial workers. Earlier in the decade, union members and students used a variety of demonstration tactics—including sit-ins, rallies, and hunger strikes—to successfully negotiate for raises and benefits from Harvard.
Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, called the firings "horrible" and said that unions at Harvard need to pool their resources to ensure that the University is "cutting extravagances and slowing down growth as much as possible" to ensure the welfare of workers and programs.
"We haven't planned anything specific in connection with our sister unions, but we're keeping in touch," Jaeger said. "We're definitely all supportive of each other's struggles, and we're all facing some of the same kinds of concerns."
—Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.