Mass. denies unemployment benefits to Tufts Dining workers

Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center is pictured. Evan Slack / The Tufts Daily

Over 130 dining workers ineligible for summer work at Tufts University have been denied their unemployment benefits claims to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, according to Tricia O’Brien, a service attendant and shop steward who works at Mugar Café.

While O’Brien and the Tufts Labor Coalition maintain that the number of those whose unemployment benefits claims have been denied is over 140, Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations, explained that since 49 out of the total 180 Tufts Dining employees are rotating among 28 summer positions, the number should be 131, which corresponds to the number of employees currently on summer leave.

O’Brien explained that the number of summer layoffs is unusually large this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as Tufts is not hosting any international conference that requires catering on campus, and the majority of its summer programs are not in person.

“What happened was, [Conference and Event Services] couldn’t book any conferences this summer, and [attendees usually] come from all over the world,” O’Brien said. “So that means catering had to close, that means retail closed, that means central kitchen closed. And the bakery department closed — which is always open in the summertime — the bakers have been working there for 40 years … and they have no job for them.”

Now that most of the dining employees are without a job, and alternative work — not guaranteed by the collective bargaining agreement between Tufts and UNITE HERE Local 26, the union that represents most dining workers — remains scarce during the pandemic, workers have to apply for unemployment benefits. So far, their claims have been unsuccessful.

O’Brien cited Article 36 of the collective bargaining agreement and argued that since most of the dining workers in question are full-time employees — and their contracts do not specify whether they are yearlong or academic-year — they are in effect laid off by Tufts during the summer, which legitimizes their unemployment claims.

“If you look at the contract, [Article 36 of the collective bargaining agreement] says [that] full-time 40-hour [per] week employees are part-time employees; it does not say academic or … full-time employees,” O’Brien said.

However, Patti Klos, director of dining and business services, asserted that the workers are academic-year employees, and that the collective bargaining agreement establishes that summer work is offered by seniority and is unguaranteed — a clause included in Article 29.

“Following the ratification of the first collective bargaining agreement, the union was very clear that they wanted all dining employees to be considered academic-year employees,” Klos said in an email to the Daily. “The union and the University arbitrated that issue last year, and the union won. Consequently, all Dining employees are now considered academic-year employees and there is no guarantee of employment during summer months.”

Klos acknowledged that the university usually has summer work opportunities available to dining employees; however, these are scarce.

“There is a process (agreed upon by both the union and the University) for interested employees to bid on those opportunities,” Klos said.

David Ossam, director of labor relations at Tufts, further explained that Massachusetts law establishes that employees of educational institutions are ineligible for unemployment benefits as long as they are issued “reasonable assurance” of employment in the upcoming academic term. Ossam noted that on May 5, Tufts Dining sent out such a letter to its workers.

“Massachusetts unemployment law recognizes that many individuals who are employed by an educational institution (such as Tufts) work based upon an academic rather than a calendar year,” Ossam said in an email to the Daily. “These individuals, if provided ‘reasonable assurance’ that they will be offered work for the next semester, are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits during the break (in this case in the summer) because they are not ‘unemployed.’ This is true even if the break is unpaid.”

Ossam also cited Section 28A of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151A, titled “Unemployment Insurance.”

“For an educational institution, benefits shall not be paid … to any individual if such individual performs such services in the first of such academic years or terms and if there is a contract or a reasonable assurance that such individual will perform services in any such capacity for any educational institution in the second of such academic years or terms,” the article reads.

Christine Tringale, a union shop steward, took issue with how hastily the May 5 letter that blocks the workers’ unemployment claims was sent out, which also did not give workers enough time to seek alternative employment.

“Most workers’ last day of work was the week of May 9th-May 15th, 2021. This letter was dated May 12th, 2021 regarding reasonable assurance,” Tringale said in an email to the Daily. “The first day of summer work was May 16th, 2021.” 

Tringale believes that Tufts’ unfair designation of its dining workers’ status led to them being unable to collect crucial unemployment benefits.

“There was nothing that we could do, except apply for unemployment because we’re unemployed,” Tringale said in an interview with the Daily. “So when people apply for unemployment, they’re getting absurd responses … Every week they wait, and they go ahead and claim, and they answer honestly what they’re looking for work, but we’re not really sure why Tufts did not prepare us for the limited amount of staff they knew they were going to have due to the pandemic and the lack of in-person learning.”

She is also skeptical of whether Tufts actually offers summer positions by seniority, given that workers with long tenures at Tufts and shop stewards with bargaining power were not invited back for the summer.

“It’s supposed to go by seniority, but … there’s people who were there 20 years, 10 years,” Tringale said. “So the question is, do you have senior people in there? There’s no shop steward scheduled, so we’re not sure if people are even being chosen by seniority, unless employees advise us about it.”

Tringale noted that workers were able to collect unemployment benefits last year. Ossam explained, however, that it was a special circumstance, as the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance eased its criteria due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tringale explained that she had been working with the Tufts Labor Coalition on its campaign to advocate for these workers, which includes photos of workers supporting each other and an email blast.

For Tringale, the campaign demands an answer from a negligent Tufts that failed to inform its workers of such legal bindings and abandoned its frontline workers.

“I know that these people have been waiting, and they’ve been constantly claiming every Sunday for their unemployment,” Tringale said. “Tufts has the advantage to answer these claims. [Workers] are unemployed, and it might be a seasonal break, but [Tufts] should have done this a while ago, so people could search for jobs. We want answers as far as, “Why did Tufts University not prepare us for disqualification of benefits?’”


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