Open Letter: UCSD Executives Must Do More to Support Temporarily Fired HDH Staff

This letter was written by a UCSD grad student who wishes to remain anonymous.

Dear Chancellor Khosla and others,

As I began crafting this letter, I reread the last few sentences of an official correspondence from the Office of the Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer to us, the UC San Diego community, which I received on June 25. You noted that we have gone through a lot in the last 14 weeks of the pandemic, that we are tired, that we have given much of ourselves, and that each of us is remarkable. For your acknowledgement of us, I thank you.

I write this letter as one of us, a proud member of the UCSD community. 

The email stated that “we rose to meet these difficult circumstances, found existing solutions when possible, and innovated in multiple and broad areas nearly every step of the way.” 

However, I cannot help but wonder if “we” can truly stand up to such a claim when just a few days before this email, the administration announced mass firings of the Housing Dining Hospitality staff. Is it true that all other ways had been exhausted, that no existing solutions could be applied, and innovations to save people’s livelihoods were in short supply, and thus “we” have to leave a part of us behind? As a formidable institution of intellect and status, how did “we” fail our dedicated HDH staff in this critical moment?

The administration has provided a reason for the “how.” As per the email, HDH is a “self-supporting department operating without any federal, state or tuition funding,” and the pandemic has forced widespread cancellation of summer housing and dining activities. Thus, there was nothing UCSD could have done. Without summer activities, the firings became inevitable – as inevitable as the third domino to fall after the second and the first. AND without support and under force, things fall. Physics dictates so. Economics dictates so. Sadly, leadership dictates so.

But it did not have to be so. I write to respectfully ask you, the executives and the other high-paid, distinguished personnel, starting with the Office of the Chancellor and Office of the Vice Chancellor, to take a voluntary pay cut of 50 percent until the campus is back and financially stable to keep as many HDH staff on the payroll as possible. 

This is not an emotionally charged, irrationally proposed, or enviously driven request. I understand the uncomfortable position in which this would place you. I understand the dilemma between being generous and self-conserving, between being moral and practical. Still, I am pleading equally to your logic and your heart.

First, let us break down the number. To the best of my knowledge, among staff and faculty whose names are shown on their respective “Meet the Team” sites and who appear to have worked full time in 2018, the 2018 median wage of top HDH staff, including executives, chefs, and seasoned administrative employees, was about $55,500, many of whom hold advanced degrees in their fields. This number is considerably lower for service workers; based on a search for “FOOD SVC WORKER”, and the UCSD Title and Pay data, it does not appear that their 2018 median income is much more than $40,000. In contrast, the 2018 median income of those in the Office of the Chancellor is about $354,000. It is not hard to see the gap. And in this very moment of crisis and uncertainty, it is high time we minded the gap.

Yet, it is not the mere mathematical difference between these two numerical figures I would like to talk about. Hidden behind that difference is the implication of social and economic safety nets. Those with lower incomes have thinner cushions to fall back on and in most cases, barely none at all. Studies from the Federal Reserves and reputable think tanks have shown that the four out of 10 Americans could not afford a $400 emergency expense, and 40 percent of households lack basic savings and are too “liquid asset poor” to weather the storm. Compared to those who have had the fortune to earn and accumulate, I wonder who would have a demonstrably worse time to maneuver the ups and downs of this crisis, and who may walk dangerously closer to the line of poverty?   

It is true that workers may have access to unemployment assistance but there are more than just wages that our staff risk losing as a result of this firing, and some may have long-term consequences. Take educational benefits for example. As people may wish to go back to school during episodes of economic instability, it makes no sense that UCSD should deprive our own staff of the chance to better themselves academically and to position themselves for future growth. Next, in a very possible scenario that COVID-19 will last well into Fall Quarter, the temporary firing may last longer than the three to months UCSD has anticipated. This means the staff risk health coverage lapse in a raging pandemic, which would be a recipe for disaster. As you can see, the dominoes may keep falling, and the consequences will not stop at a few months out of work. By firing HDH employees this summer, UCSD will perpetuate the cycle of pushing people further down the opportunity queue and keep them further away from recovery, let alone from getting ahead.

The next argument is the risk you would personally take when giving up half of your income until at least Fall Quarter 2020. I am aware of how expenses are generally structured around incomes and how one’s standard of living may be starkly different than the rest. This is rightfully the American dream each of us is striving toward — to have two chickens in the pot and two cars in the garage is deserving, inspiring, as well as conducive to the promotion of social mobility and prosperity. Though, may I please bring up again the notion of “liquid asset” aforementioned, and I shall take the liberty to expect the leaders of UCSD to have a strong sense of financial intelligence when handling your own personal finances so that you already have the resources necessary to wait out these rainy days. 

I am not ignorant of the fact that high-paid positions come with responsibilities and years of experience and training. Nonetheless, COVID-19 has forced us to reevaluate our sense of contributions to a society struggling to function in crisis mode — who among us, if not the housing and dining staff, would justly claim to be essential? Not me. I have been working from home since March. And sometimes when I run through the empty campus to break the monotony of a day, random thoughts cross my mind as I pass the social distancing signs I do not put out, the trash cans I do not empty, or the crunchy leaves not awaiting my hands to rake. I ponder the irony between the named and the nameless: how a regular student like me who would know your names but most likely has not met you and will never talk to you during our entire time at UCSD. But a regular student like me surely has met a HDH employee, has talked to a HDH employee, and has been helped by an HDH employee whose name we may or may not bother to ask. COVID-19 has made us face the often glossed-over fact that essential jobs do not always equate to the highest paid jobs, and high paid jobs do not always equate to the most essential jobs. 

Oh, yes, diversity, too. We cannot  fail to acknowledge the conflicting philosophy between the repeated pledges to diversity and equality on campus and the one short-and-sweet goodbye to hundreds of workers, many of whom are of minority backgrounds. A GoFundMe campaign by UCSD staff to raise funds for fired staff mentions that most of the workers are Latino/a/x. I am also concerned for numerous workers with disabilities that I have seen working around campus before the pandemic. Are they fired, too?

Next comes logistics. I have heard the debate that it is not possible to transfer the salary from one person to another and that the initial 10 percent cut you pledged is more symbolic than pragmatic. But UCSD has already systematically encouraged and made it logistically possible for people to donate their leaves or sick days to those in need — we did this during the 2017-18 wildfires. If a non-liquid form of benefits such as sick days can be transferred, surely we can think of some way to transfer salaries (hint: innovation time). Another solution is to set up a fund into which the 50 percent amount can be deposited as individual donations, from which benefactors may also enjoy tax breaks and which also works with how HDH is financially independent from UCSD. This way, the symbolic act becomes real, meaningful, and reflective of ethical and effective leadership.

As I call on you now to share the cushions with those less fortunate, I hope you see how your decisions today will impact lives for the better, or the worse, in the midst of critical events that define a generation. I hope that for once the teasingly ambiguous line in those mass emails announcing the promotion or retirement of high-post personnels, you know, that “under their leadership, the University/Department saw an X percent increase in something something positive” line, can truly and proudly imply a causal relationship, or at least some direct correlation, over some mere coincidence so fortuitous it might upset those of us mathematically correct folks. 

Be the leader we look up at you to be.

With thoughts and regards,

One of us

Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash