COLUMN: DePaul needs to do right by Chartwells employees

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Marcus Robertson

Le'Denise Henderson, a Chartwells barista who was laid off, speaks to protesters.

I grew up in a large family, both immediate and extended, with a strong cultural influence. We all live within 10 minutes from one another to this day. Leaving home left some gaps for me and my daily life at DePaul. I genuinely felt alone some days, until I went to the dining hall. 

Nothing connected me with home like the workers who come from an array of backgrounds and are mostly people of color, like me. The dining hall became a refuge for me in the transition to college life. The people I met who worked in my dining hall brought me warmth, a smile and the familiar conversations I missed in my daily life growing up in my packed home filled with never-ending laughter and chats. In their eyes, I saw my family. The dining hall workers helped me build my second home. 

Like many right now, I know that my home and the people in it are in danger and I have to do what I can to keep us safe. To that end, I have been volunteering with UNITE HERE Local 1 — the union our dining workers are a part of — to organize with workers for safety and just treatment.

For the last month, that volunteering has meant working with laid-off Local 1 members who work in hotels, airports, and other parts of Chicago’s hospitality industry to help them be prepared when their health insurance coverage expires. Most have been laid off since March. The health care crisis employers have created in the middle of a global pandemic is unconscionable. 

Chartwells at DePaul along with Compass at Northwestern and Aramark at Loyola are some of the few employers to continue paying for the health insurance of laid-off workers. But that changed on Sept. 1 at DePaul when workers lost a number of COVID-19 specific protections, including health insurance payments for our dining workers who were and are still laid off.

It is our role, as a DePaul community, to make sure everyone is protected and cared for— to pay “special attention to the poor and marginalized,” right? This moment depends on us walking hand in hand to urge DePaul and Chartwells to protect their workers.

There are no excuses to be made. According to their mission statements, DePaul and Chartwells pride themselves in caring for their community. Not standing with workers who help provide friendly faces and are the backbone of DePaul’s operations is a moral failure. 

The workers are fighting the fight, but it is on us — the students, faculty, and members of the DePaul community — to demand a safe workplace, a living wage and healthcare protections because no battle can be won alone and, especially in a COVID-world, the health and safety of one of our community affects us all. We can hold hands in this fight by taking action and having conversations with the people around us. I encourage you to start by signing the petition (http://tinyurl.com/saferdining) for dining worker health and safety.

Editor’s note (9/8/2020): This story has been updated to include information about dining hall employees at Northwestern University and Loyola University.