When the coronavirus was confirmed in North Carolina in early March, the Triangle’s universities were among the first to react. Duke University extended its spring break and announced a move to online classes March 10. The next day, the UNC System Board of Governors made the same call.

The shutdowns were met with questions—not just from students, but from staff as well. Dining-hall workers, sanitation staff, graduate students, and resident advisers weren’t sure when they’d be returning to campus, if they’d be getting paid, and even if they still had jobs. 

Contracted workers—those who worked for the university through a third-party vendor that operates on the university—were especially confused. They’d been considered essential to the universities in hurricanes and snow, but the pandemic was new territory.

The INDY spoke with workers at Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, and N.C. Central to see how they’re treating workers as students and faculty desert campus.


On March 10, Duke students and faculty received a notice that the university would close its doors. Students were told their spring break would be extended until March 22, and classes would continue online.

The university’s contracted workers were not told anything.

Davon Ferguson, a 22-year-old contracted worker in the Brodhead Center and a member of grassroots group Duke Contract Workers United, says he never heard from the university that students would not be returning or anything about what would happen to food vendors while campus is closed. 

Most communication from the university to contracted employees comes from managers. But Ferguson heard about the decisions from students.

“[My friend] had said they were closing school down for the rest of the year, essentially,” Ferguson says. “I was like, that’s got to be taken out of context.”

Twitter told him it wasn’t. He texted his manager for confirmation. The workers didn’t receive any information from their employer until later that day. 

Another contracted worker, who asked to remain anonymous, says that while she is still employed, her schedule says zero hours. “Some of us are in really dire situations,” she says. “We’re making a hundred dollars stretch right now.”

Under pressure from contracted staff, who banded together as Duke Contract Workers United, Duke vice president Tallman Trask III released a statement on March 18 promising that all food service workers “currently assigned to work full-time in Duke University facilities as well as employees of the Washington Duke Inn and J.B. Duke Hotel will maintain their current pay through May 31, 2020, to the extent that their employers are unable to do so, and they are not covered by pending state and federal government programs.”

Members of DCWU worried that the “full-time” wording might prevent some contract workers from being paid; many workers in the Brodhead Center’s dining stations are kept under the full-time limit so that contractors don’t have to pay them $15 an hour or offer benefits. 

But on Sunday, The Duke Chronicle reported that the administration said it considered anyone who worked 30 hours or more to be full-time, even if hours were split between companies under one contractor. 

However, DCWU still says most contract workers won’t meet the requirement. Another contracted employee told the INDY she works only 29 hours a week. She and others in DCWU say this is the case for many contracted workers.


At public universities, communication between faculty and staff has been more transparent. The UNC System said supervisors must determine which employees are mandatory and not mandatory—meaning who continues to work on campus and who stays home.

Faydene Alston, a housekeeper at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Davis Library, says she was told by her supervisor that she’d receive paid administrative leave until she could return to work. This was confirmed by a March 17 statement from the university saying that any non-mandatory employee who could not do their job at home would still be paid.

On N.C. State’s campus, the conversation hasn’t been as clear. Grace Ullman, a teaching assistant, graduate student, and president of the university’s UE150 NC Public Service Workers Union chapter, says she’s received more information as a student than as an employee.

The university confirmed that all employees would be informed by supervisors what constituted a mandatory or non-mandatory worker, but UE150 wants a standardized definition. Other university efforts, such as sick leave that won’t draw from the employees’ allotted sick days, only hold up until March 31.

“This is not going to be over in less than two weeks,” Ullman says. “If anything, there’s going to be more sick people around.”


Larry Tucker, a mandatory employee at N.C. Central, has to show up every day. His job performing maintenance on campus residential buildings hasn’t changed much since the reduction in operations, he says. 

“It’s pretty much business as usual,” he says. “We don’t have any more personal protective equipment than we usually have.”

Tucker says he’s been asked multiple times by his supervisor to sign a letter saying that he’d continue to work during the university’s reduced operations. He responded that he’d continue to come in, but he refused to sign a letter obligating him to do so.

“You don’t have to worry about me coming up with excuses and saying I’m not coming in,” he says. “But I have an uncle that has kidney cancer, and two of my children have asthma, so that’s a compromised immune system.”

Tucker provided the INDY with a copy of the letter, which was circulated by Central’s Office of Administration and Finance. A representative from the office says the letter was intended to clarify the definition and responsibilities of a mandatory employee, not to bind them to show up, and employees weren’t obligated to sign. 

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