Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies and director of the University’s Center for Media and Citizenship, started a GoFundMe page April 1 with the goal of raising $100,000 for contracted workers at the University after learning of mass layoffs among Aramark contract workers. Since starting the GoFundMe, $34,768 has been raised.
“I thought it would be very helpful after I saw a number of U.Va. students asking what they might do to help,” Vaidhyanathan said. “I decided to set up a GoFundMe page to solicit donations from the community, hoping that U.Va. faculty would lead the way. I did that [last Wednesday] evening. By Thursday morning, the page had raised more than $13,000.”
The GoFundMe closed for donations Monday after the University announced the creation of a $2 million emergency assistance fund for furloughed contracted workers. The University also pledged $1 million to the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation’s Community Emergency Response Fund.
Vaidhyanathan started the fund after responding to a Twitter post from first-year College Student Zyahna Bryant, where he inquired whether a fund for Aramark workers had been created. In her original post, Bryant pledged to give part of her housing and dining refund from the University to support contracted workers.
Pro-rated refunds for housing and dining were dispersed for students April 2 in response to the University moving online.
“I instantly thought about the fact that I know so many contracted workers, personally,” Bryant said. “I thought about the long days I’ve had, and simply walking into Rising Roll, and the ladies who work there check in on me. They ask about my day. Some of them even went to high school with my mom or aunts. It is clear that in times of crisis, those who are treated as the most disposable are the most affected.”
Aramark employees at the University were sent home indefinitely following the closure of the University’s dining facilities. The number of people affected is unknown because Aramark has thus far refused to provide a roster of the employees laid off or furloughed, according to Vaidhyanathan. Because of this, Vaidhyanathan faces a challenge when eventually deciding how to allocate the funds raised by the GoFundMe.
Without the ability to access information as to who was furloughed, Vaidhyanathan intends to work with the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation – which has already raised $2.3 million in its efforts to provide financial support to households and organizations in the Central Virginia region affected by the pandemic – and other local organizations to distribute the funds.
“We are working with a number of community organizing organizations that have done similar fundraisers and distributed money stuff they have the experience,” Vaidhyanathan said. “This is the first time I've done anything like this.”
Other mutual aid fund at the University include the Hoos Helping Hoos network, launched by Student Council last month.
According to University spokesperson Wes Hester, Aramark has expanded employee benefits — including extra sick leave and access to assistance services — and expanded medical benefits, which are paid for by Aramark, through June 30. In addition to this, Aramark has implemented a meal pick up program for affected Aramark employees, which began Monday, and has donated to local food pantries around Charlottesville.
In a community petition, student organizers argue that the University has a responsibility to support all workers — contracted and direct alike — during the COVID-19 crisis. The petition has since garnered over 1,100 signatures. Bryant credits the work of these community activists for spurring change in the University community, especially when it comes to supporting University workers.
“I think it is great to have tough conversations about inequities that exist within our community, but it does not mean much if we do not actually push for change,” Bryant said. “I applaud student organizers and community members who have been doing work around these issues for decades. The Living Wage campaign at U.Va. has been doing this work. Community members have been speaking about the conditions for contracted workers. Now is the time to listen, and support their efforts.”