Bringing visibility to invisible workers

09/30/2016 02:49 pm ET

As I waited in line to enter the cafeteria, anxiety set in. I was low on meal swipes and wasn’t sure if they had run out. There was still a week left in the semester, and I had no money left for food.

As I pulled up to the counter, T.J., a dining worker at my university, greeted me. I handed her my meal card, she swiped it, smiled at me and told me to have a good day. I later found out that I had already ran out of meal swipes, but T.J. was kind enough to let me in regardless. When I asked her why she did something so kind, she responded with “I don’t let any of my babies go hungry.” I wished her a fun summer, and told her I would see her in September when school started again.

The semester started, but there was no sight of T.J. She wasn’t at the counter, and she wasn’t picking up her phone. I asked one of the other workers where she was. The worker solemnly looked at me, and told me TJ had passed away during the summer. I was shocked, how could she pass away and none of the students know about this? But then I remembered, she wasn’t a professor, and as such, the university would not send out an email on her death.

It was standard protocol for my university to send out an email when faculty died. They even afforded this to faculty emeritus who had retired decades ago, even those who had retired from teaching before I was born.

The real reason they didn’t send out a note was because she was a food service workers, an occupation that is looked down upon at universities like mine. I logged into my Facebook account and wrote a post where I demanded the American University administration issue an email acknowledging that she passed away. I asked everyone to share the post, and within minutes dozens of people started sharing it. Comments started flooding in with people remembering the great things T.J. did for them.

But sadness turned into anger. Many wondered why the university did not release a simple statement of her passing away. The next day, the school newspaper wrote an article on the outrage students felt against the university and Aramark.

After the news broke, the administration starting scrambling. Apparently, Aramark never notified the university about T.J. passing away. At the same time, I spoke with a university official and demanded to know why the university treated the death of service workers much differently than that of professors. She told me it was because they were subcontracted.

In the official’s mind it didn’t matter that, at one time they were employed by the university, or that T.J. had given almost a decade of her life to the university. Because the university now subcontracted food services, T.J.’s affairs were the problem of Aramark, not AU.

That same day, I received an email from the Assistant Vice President apologizing for not sending out a note on her death. Apparently, the university did not send out statements on the deaths of workers who were subcontracted. That same day, the university also sent out an email on her death, praising her for being an invaluable part of the university community. I share this story because visibility is important. Sometimes we wonder why certain injustices happen to workers. It’s because they are invisible to the general population.

It’s no accident that faculty members receive an acknowledgement, and even a memorial event at the university, while workers don’t even get a simple note that they died.

In our classist university system, some occupations are venerated, while others are looked down upon.

While the email that the vice president sent out to thousands of students didn’t change anything, at a minimum it brought acknowledgement to a worker who was a counselor and mother figure to many. Since this ordeal, American University has instituted a new policy of notifying the community when a subcontracted worker dies.

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