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Olivia Fine / Columbia Daily Spectator

Essential workers are, on average, paid below the national wage, disproportionately exposed to communicable diseases, and are in constant close contact with others.

Columbia has temporarily provided 10 paid workdays, on top of the city-wide 40 hours of sick paid leave, for emergencies that may arise due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, the independent firms that employ Public Safety officers, construction workers, and some maintenance workers at the University are not required to provide additional paid leave for their employees. Even if workers fall under the category of essential workers and perform duties that require them to remain on campus or in close proximity to others, they are under no protection to receive more than 10 days and 40 hours as mandated by New York City and Columbia.

If a subcontracted worker is unionized, they would receive the same amount of paid leave days as a direct-hire who is represented by the same union. For direct hires who are not in a union, Columbia provides a graduated scale starting at 12 days of medical leave if you have worked at the company for at least a month.

Meanwhile, the effects of the pandemic—namely, the closing of schools, lack of access to childcare, a potential recession, and fatal threats to health—are estimated to last anywhere from four months to over a year.

Most universities, including Columbia, hire subcontracted workers on a regular basis to perform essential tasks. This means that employees receive benefits and comply with policies as set by their respective independent contractors and unions. Recently, subcontracted workers at Harvard University were not initially extended the 30 days of paid leave offered to direct-hire employees for this reason.

While many services—including dining, custodial, and repair—are entirely composed of direct-hires, the University allows firms to bid on contracts to provide services or workers for security positions in addition to construction projects and other maintenance projects not directly overseen by Columbia Facilities.

For essential workers, extra paid leave could be used in cases of personal illness or to care for a sick family member. Essential workers are likely to come in close contact with others, be exposed to potentially communicable diseases at a higher rate, and are, on average, paid below the national median wage—meaning that they are likely to have a difficult trade-off between economic sustainability and personal and community-wide health.

Additionally, Columbia employees are not eligible for the up to 10 weeks of paid sick leave that were given to companies with under 500 employees, which were federally funded by the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package.

In an effort to combat New York City’s concentration of COVID-19 cases, which are the highest in the nation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently extended the mandate requiring non-essential employees to stay away from their worksites until April 15. Essential workers are still expected to arrive at work unless otherwise specified by the employer, or they risk termination. At Columbia, the support staff has continued operations.

Currently, a number of essential employees operate in roles that are losing demand in light of the mass evacuation of students from campus. This has led to major layoffs, such as at the University of Pennsylvania, where approximately 140 dining workers will be left without pay starting in April.

As a temporary measure, Columbia has implemented reassignments or paid excused absences for 10 days so that workers will not have to worry about losing hours due to the diminishing demand. For its own employees, the University states that it has provided additional paid leave on a circumstantial basis.

News Editor Valeria Escobar can be contacted at valeria.escobar@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the University subcontracts dining and custodial staff. The article has been updated to reflect that the University subcontracts workers for public safety and construction and some maintenance staff not directly employed by Columbia Facilities and Operations. Spectator regrets this error.

COVID-19 subcontracted workers essential workers union paid leave
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