World Bank food service workers furloughed

Laveta Brigham

The World Bank Group’s Staff Association, a union-like organization representing 12,500 of the bank’s estimated 16,000 employees in the District and elsewhere, urged management to consider an alternate proposal: continue to pay the food service crew and allow them to use the bank’s kitchen to prepare and serve meals for […]

The World Bank Group’s Staff Association, a union-like organization representing 12,500 of the bank’s estimated 16,000 employees in the District and elsewhere, urged management to consider an alternate proposal: continue to pay the food service crew and allow them to use the bank’s kitchen to prepare and serve meals for local food banks and nonprofits. Such a move would allow the bank to receive services for its expenses and build on the philanthropic work of its Community Connections Program, which collects donations from staff and combines them with matching funds to assist area nonprofits, the association said.

“Staff in the hundreds have let us know how upset they are with this decision, and thousands signed the petition urging management to back down,” Daniel Sellen, chair of the World Bank Group’s Staff Association, said in an email. “After all, we’re talking about colleagues we have worked with for years — decades in some cases — and they’re part of the extended family here in Washington.”

But World Bank senior management have said they have little choice but to move forward on furloughs given the uncertainty of when normal operations will resume and their other commitments around the globe.

In internal communiques obtained by The Washington Post, management told employees that the institution has made extra efforts to ensure that food service employees received pay and health benefits since the shutdown began. An update posted by management to the bank’s internal website on Nov. 9 and obtained by The Post says the institution laid out $11 million in ­non-obligatory subsidies to the food workers’ employer, Restaurant Associates, since March despite receiving no services in return.

The bank has also worked with Restaurant Associates to ensure that the food service workers continue to receive pay through Jan. 1 and health care for an additional six months after that, a spokesman said. The expectation is that workers would return when the pandemic is brought under control.

“Our staff have deep admiration and respect for our headquarters food service colleagues, who we saw every day and have missed since our office moved to home based working in March because of the pandemic,” World Bank spokesman David Theis said in an email. “We are exploring additional ways to support these vital workers, and we hope to have better news and greater certainty in the coming months.”

A call and email to Restaurant Associates on Friday seeking comment weren’t immediately returned.

The World Bank Group is made up of five institutions that make loans and grants to lift standards of living in developing countries.

On Oct. 30, the institution announced the decision to furlough the employees. By the following Monday, the executive committee of the Staff Association was urging employees to sign the petition and send a message that furloughs were “precisely the wrong thing to do to vulnerable households during a crisis.”

More than 300 comments, often impassioned and angry, have also been posted on the institution’s in-house website, according to the association and a screenshot obtained by The Post.

“There must be another way forward that aligns with the values of the institution and doesn’t exacerbate . . . what is already a very difficult situation, especially for the most vulnerable,” an employee wrote.

Several employees, noting that the food workers’ salaries had already been budgeted and that the World Bank has been saving millions of dollars on travel and business meetings conducted online only, urged management to plow those savings into supporting the food service workers.

But senior management said the funds saved through virtual meetings and reduced travel have already been redirected into efforts to support developing countries struggling to contain the pandemic and its economic damage. The institution has pledged $160 billion through June 2021 to help developing nations cope with the pandemic.

Sellen said he appreciated the management’s openness to hearing the association’s concerns and its willingness to cover the food service workers’ health insurance through June. Yet he also argued that going ahead with the furloughs would have no appreciable impact on the bank’s massive budget while having an enormous impact on the workers and community.

“Problem is, you can’t buy food or pay rent with medical insurance,” he said. “And if you’re in the food services industry, this is no time to be looking for a job.”

If the bank doesn’t back down, the Staff Association has discussed setting up a “Compassion Fund” using employee donations to help the food service workers.

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