On the afternoon of Nov. 17, the standard post-lunch hum of Usdan was replaced by chants and shouts as a handful of students and around two dozen dining workers gathered near Louis’ Deli  for yet another demonstration organized by the Brandeis Leftist Union, a student organization and dining workers. Soon, the group began walking toward the entrance of the Usdan Kitchen dining hall. Dining workers at The Hive joined in with the group as they passed by. 

A few people held homemade banners and signs. Some of these signs, such as a large painted banner that reads “Worker Power, Student Power,” have been displayed at many protests on campus over the past year. Many of the signs, however, were freshly drawn. Dining workers held pieces of cardboard with phrases such as “WE WANT TO USE ARE (sic) VACATION HOURS NOW!!” and “WE ARE NOT NEW TO BRANDEIS,” written in all-caps with black Sharpie. 

The day before, the Leftist Union announced on Instagram that they would be hosting an “Emergency Action to support dining workers” the following day. “Harvest table is REFUSING to give dining workers their vacations if they want to take them and saying they must wait a year to take them!” the club’s post stated. 

“What do we want? Vacation time! When do we want it? Now!” students and workers chanted at the protest, standing in front of the entrance to Usdan Kitchen. Soon, they switched from “Vacation time!” to “Clay!” 

They were referring to Clayton Hargrove, the executive director of Harvest Table Culinary Services at Brandeis. A week earlier, the dining workers’ union sent Hargrove a grievance in regard to workers not being able to use their accrued vacation time. Harvest Table had one week to respond to union grievances, per Article 22 of the collective bargaining agreement. The deadline for Hargrove to respond was Nov. 17, the day of the demonstration. At the time of the protest, Hargrove still had not sent an answer. 

The gathered protestors began shouting “Where is Clay? Where is Clay?” Soon, Hargrove came out to the entrance of the dining hall to face the group. He was accompanied by Ryan Moore, a Harvest Table “transition manager.” The crowd clapped and cheered when the two men arrived, but it quickly became clear that the gathered workers weren’t there to shower their managers with praise. People quickly began voicing their frustrations to Hargrove. “You said you’d have an answer for us today,” said a worker. Hargrove responded that he was “working on the answer” and later said he would send an answer by “close of business day,” but would not specify an exact time. 

The collective bargaining agreement is the contract between the dining vendor and the dining workers’ union, which all workers sign on to. As workers began voicing their concerns, Hargrove asked, “[Does] everybody know what a collective bargaining agreement is?” and held up a paper copy of the contract. “Sure we do, it’s not the first one that we’ve had,” dining worker Mily Santana, standing at the front of the group, responded. “I’ll read it to you,” Hargrove said, and began reading Article 13 of the contract aloud. 

“Vacation hours are accrued during one year and become available for use during the following year. All employees regardless of their anniversary date will accrue vacation hours between July 1 and June 30 of the following year,” he read, adding, “It’s very clear.” The gathered workers shouted out in disagreement.

“You accepted our contract the way it is, there were no changes done in the contract,” said Santana. The current contract is a word-for-word copy of the dining workers’ union’s previous contract with Sodexo. “Aramark,” parent company of Harvest Table, was inserted wherever the contract formerly said “Sodexo.” Longtime dining workers said the last time Brandeis switched dining vendors, from Aramark to Sodexo in 2013, they did not have to wait a full year to use their vacation hours. 

“Past practice, we’ve always been able to use our vacation we’ve accrued,” one worker said during the protest. Lucia Hsiung has worked at Brandeis since 2000 and said that during both the switch to Sodexo ten years ago, and the switch to Aramark years earlier, workers were able to take paid vacation days during the first year. “Why only [with] Harvest Table [do] we have the problem?” Hsiung asked Hargrove, standing mere feet away from him at the front of the group. 

Santana shared Hsiung’s confusion. She said in her 17 years working at Brandeis, she’s always been able to use her vacation time at any point in the year. “Why now that Harvest Table has come aboard I can’t use my vacation as needed for the holidays and the coming vacation?” Santana said in a Dec. 1 text correspondence with the Justice.

Two dining workers, both of whom have been working at Brandeis for over 10 years and asked to remain anonymous, spoke to the Justice on Nov. 17 following the demonstration. They said that when Harvest Table took over as Brandeis’ new dining vendor, workers weren’t aware that the company would not allow them to use their vacation hours for a full year following the switch. “We didn’t know,” said one of the workers, adding that this has “never happened before.”

Michelle Pallone has worked at Brandeis for 25 years. Brandeis has switched dining vendors multiple times since Pallone started working at the University, but she said taking paid time off has never been an issue until this year. “I have always been able to use my vacation during school breaks,” Pallone wrote in a text, “Harvest Table should allow us to use our vacation hours NOW, not wait till July.” 

At the demonstration, Hargrove said that to allow workers to use their vacation hours before July 2023, Harvest Table would need to “break the contract” between the company and the workers’ union. “The [union] signed a contract that said, I can’t pay them to take their vacation until July 1 of next year,” he said, “So why didn’t the [union] change the clause in the contract before they signed?” This was met with an uproar from the gathered workers, who responded with shouts of “Wrong!” 

Gary Mendez, who has been at Brandeis for 13 years, spoke to the Justice on Nov. 17 following the demonstration. “I didn’t see this contract,” he said about the collective bargaining agreement, which totals 38 pages. He continued, “I’m sure a lot of other [workers] hadn’t seen it as well … so we didn’t know the language of the contract.” Mendez said he wasn’t sure if every dining worker was given a copy of the contract, or just briefed on its contents. He said having to wait a year to use accrued vacation hours likely would have been a deal breaker for workers, had they known this would be the case before agreeing to the contract.

Like many of his coworkers, Mendez was concerned about Thanksgiving break. He said to his managers “Based on what just happened … we just don’t know whether we’re going to be able to use it next week [Thanksgiving],” Mendez said, adding, “I don't even know if I’m gonna be able to use it in December. Neither do any of my coworkers.”

Despite Hargrove telling workers at the demonstration that he would have an answer by the end of the day, Harvest Table requested an extension to respond to the grievance sent by the dining workers’ union a week earlier, according to a post from the Brandeis Leftist Union on the night of the protest. The club said it would be holding another “emergency action” the following day and called on students to “stand in solidarity at Usdan” to demand that Harvest Table give workers their vacation time. On Nov. 21, Harvest Table agreed to let workers take two paid vacation days over the Thanksgiving break in addition to Thanksgiving Day and the day after, which are already paid days off for all dining workers. On Nov. 29, Hargrove told the Justice he “broke the contract” by giving workers these extra days off.

“Vacation days for future breaks have still not been decided upon as of now,” the Brandeis Leftist Union stated in a Nov. 21 post. On Dec. 3, the club posted that Harvest Table “refused to give workers their vacation time for the winter break” and encouraged students to join dining workers on Dec. 7 to demand vacation time.

The collective bargaining agreement states that “employees are encouraged to take their paid vacation time when the operation is closed – that is, at Winter break, Spring break, and at the end of the academic year in May.” If workers are not allowed to take paid vacation hours, but University operations are closed, they are forced to take unpaid time off.

“It is only fair that while the rest of the university goes on thanksgiving and winter break, that workers should be able to use vacation time to do the same!” BLU’s Nov. 16 post stated. The two dining workers who spoke to the Justice anonymously after the demonstration said they had to go without pay during the September holidays this year, when many of Brandeis’ dining services were paused. “I hope [Harvest Table] can understand us, why it’s difficult for us,” one worker said, adding, “We need this money for our life.” For Brandeis’ dining staff, the question of their vacation hours still remains unanswered as the world commences this holiday season.