Northwestern food workers ‘die-in’ for COVID protections
Noah Carson-Nelson / Unite Here Local 1

EVANSTON, Ill. – Is it too much to ask for an institution sitting on an $11 billion dollar endowment to provide sick pay for 14 days for an employee under a coronavirus quarantine?

“Dying in” for health and safety, scores of cooks and housekeepers employed at Northwestern University’s leafy lakeside campus here put their bodies on the sidewalk to dramatize the need for Covid-19 health and safety protections for workers.

Gloria, a member of Local 1, at the demonstration. | Roberta Wood / PW

“If we have to take off 14 days to quarantine, we don’t get paid,” explained Hugo Lemus. Lemus, a dorm cook, has worked for 15 years at Northwestern. He takes pride in the expertise he has developed in preparing food to exacting specifications for the kosher food division at Allison Hall. “We know to keep the milk and meat separate and present everything for approval to the supervising rabbi before it’s served,” he explains.

Lemus is a shop steward for his workgroup as part of Unite Here Local 1. He’s an eloquent spokesperson, reflecting the Local’s focus on rank and file leadership. Local 1 represents 400 workers at the university’s dining facilities. Northwestern contracts out its food services to Compass Group.

Dining hall and hospitality workers at Northwestern are from communities which have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis in Chicago and nationwide, says Noah Carson-Nelson, a research analyst for the local. Eighty-one percent are Black or Latinx, he told People’s World.

In addition to quarantine pay, workers need training, hazard pay, and a moratorium on discipline for COVID-19-related absences, Carson-Nelson continued.

Noah Carson-Nelson / Unite Here Local 1

Facing loss of health insurance are 250 of Northwestern’s food workers currently on lay off. They got a temporary reprieve when that insurance was extended to the end of October after concerted pressure from the workers and their union.

Lemus’s co-worker Gloria, also a professional cook, attended the demonstration in uniform. A small but telling feature of that uniform highlights her diligence in protecting the health of the students and faculty whose food she prepares – a special pocket holds a thermometer to check the temperature of the meat that is served. The workers are asking for the same care from their employers. “Si nos cortan el seguro, nos estan matando!” she says, explaining the die in. “If they cut our health care, they’re killing us!”

According to the website of Northwestern’s endowment, the $11 billion dollars they’re sitting on generates a half-billion dollars a year return.

By this reporter’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, continuing health care coverage for the families of its 250 laid off workers would cost less than $200,000 a month.

Can Northwestern afford to continue employee health care? Karen Kent, Local 1’s president, took a long look at the workers lying on the ground, then waved her hand slowly across the vast expanse of Northwestern’s stately buildings and manicured lawns that line Sheridan Road for a mile or so: “I’m confident they can afford it,” she responds.


Roberta Wood
Roberta Wood

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.