Harvard’s health policy professors ignoring needs of their dining hall workers

Struggling to Serve at the Nation’s Richest University

By Rosa Ines Rivera
The New York Times, October 24, 2016

I’ve been at Harvard University for 17 years, but I’ve never been in a classroom here. I’m a cook in the dining halls. I work in the cafeteria at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where every day I serve amazing students studying medicine, nutrition and child welfare, as well as the doctors and researchers who train them.

While I’ve earned no college credits here, I’ve had a lesson in hypocrisy.

On my way to work each morning, I pass a building with the inscription: “The highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” If Harvard believes this, why is the administration asking dining hall workers to pay even more for our health care even though some of us pay as much as $4,000 a year in premiums alone?

I serve the people who created Obamacare, people who treat epidemics and devise ways to make the world healthier and more humane. But I can’t afford the health care plan Harvard wants us to accept.

That’s why I have been on strike with 750 co-workers for more than two weeks. That’s why the other day, co-workers and I were arrested after we sat down in Harvard Square, blocking traffic, in an act of civil disobedience. And that’s why the medical school students, in their white coats, have been walking the picket line with us in solidarity.

Medical students analyzed Harvard’s proposal and found that the cost of premiums alone could eat up almost 10 percent of my income.

The students say that Harvard’s proposal is unaffordable for nearly all of us according to state government guidelines. If it goes through, I will keep avoiding the doctor to save that money for my kids’ co-pays. Any increase puts me at the breaking point.

Harvard is the richest university in the nation, with a $35 billion endowment. But I can’t live on what Harvard pays me. I take home between $430 and $480 a week, and this August, I fell behind on my $1,150 rent and lost my apartment. Now my two kids and I are staying with my mother in public housing, with all four of us sharing a single bedroom.

I know that health care costs are going up everywhere, and I don’t have all the answers. But there must be some way not to shift costs onto Harvard’s poorest workers.

If good health is truly “one of the fundamental rights of every human being,” then shouldn’t that also apply to the human beings working in Harvard’s cafeterias?


Published comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.
San Juan Capistrano, CA

In my work, volunteering as a health policy fellow for Physicians for a National Health Program, I follow the health policy literature, including that produced by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

They devote much of their research to tweaking the highly flawed policies that have resulted in the most expensive health care system but one that is infamous for its mediocre performance for far too many. In spite of the Affordable Care Act, tens of millions remain uninsured or underinsured, creating for them financial hardship and impaired access.

The academic community is quite aware that a well designed single payer system funded with the 3 trillion dollars that we are already spending would provide high quality, comprehensive care for everyone with no financial barriers such as those that are being forced upon their dining hall workers.

It is reassuring for our future that the students seem to understand, but it is astonishing that too many of the academics seem to be oblivious. They should be leading the protest, not only at Harvard, but throughout the nation.

President Obama gave a great speech this past week defending our dysfunctional system while once again dismissing single payer, yet he cited many deficiencies that would be adequately corrected only with comprehensive reform and not mere tweaks. He knows that single payer is the way to go, and he need only look at the dining hall workers at his alma mater as a reminder of why we need to take that course.