The University and its Workers during the Pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic has affected universities all over the country and the world. Different institutions have chosen different approaches, from keeping all courses online and discouraging students from returning (Smith College, Harvard University, etc.) to a full opening of residential services and face-to-face courses (University of Notre Dame, Purdue University). Some of the latter group have had to shift course or impose new restrictions in the face of advancing case numbers. All these decisions have sparked a range of responses from students, faculty, workers, and community members who share public spaces with the students returning to campus towns.  A variety of needs and concerns have been voiced in these discussions.  Often, those who do much of the work of providing residential and dining services to students, cleaning classroom buildings, and staffing offices are the least heard in planning and charting the course of safety in these pandemic times.

For Fall, 2020, the University of Illinois decided to open residential services and some in-person classes to students who wanted to return to campus. It drew on its own intellectual and infrastructural research to produce a COVID-19 testing and tracking program that has been widely publicized around the country. Despite, or because of, this program, case numbers on campus have been high, much higher than anticipated by the program’s scientific modelers. (You can see the University’s COVID testing dashboard here.) This caused a brief tightening of restrictions on student movement and socializing, but no reversal of overall policy. The University’s response to these unanticipated numbers of positive COVID cases was one issue that representatives of many organizations representing university workers expressed at a recent virtual town hall on workers concerns, held September 22.

As the town hall revealed, the concerns and needs of university workers during the pandemic are varied and, in many cases, quite acute. As workers, students, and community members, participants in the town hall wanted more transparency about how University administrators and planners were thinking about the impact of these positive cases on University planning going forward. They called for the University to be more forthcoming about what if any numbers would be too high to continue with in-person courses and a student presence, and how wider risks to campus and local communities associated with the rising volume of COVID cases would be addressed. Many representatives demanded union representation on the University’s COVID-19 task forces, so campus workers’ perspectives and difficulties (and those of their families and neighbors in the community, who share the risks they take at work) could be more immediately reflected in University policy. Beyond this, there are concerns about the university’s potential proprietary interest in the SHIELD technology and application which students and faculty are encouraged to use to support the university’s testing and tracing efforts. Many students and workers see a greater need to make the testing freely available to the wider community, who are workers’ family members and neighbors.

In addition to these common concerns, different groups of workers on campus each have particular demands and needs. Building Service Workers, represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, have suffered particularly from changes in shift times and assignments that have upset their ability to continue to hold second jobs to supplement their low pay at the University. (See in-depth coverage of this situation in the September 2020 Public i.) These changes have also interfered with family responsibilities, particularly for school children learning at home, that have been increased by the pandemic. On top of this, workers servicing buildings in which COVID-positive students are quarantined fear for their lives due to the proximity to coronavirus-stricken students their jobs require. At the same time, the COVID-19 safety measures sometimes pose new problems, such as dehydration while working in suffocating Hazmat suits, a condition for which some workers have been hospitalized. These workers need hazard pay for their hazardous jobs in order to compensate for the risk of death, potential loss of work, health threat to their families, and possible medical bills created by the potential exposure to COVID their jobs create.  Meanwhile, Food Service Workers, also represented by SEIU, face a prolonged layoff between Thanksgiving and January when, in the absence of students living on campus, they will be furloughed, as usually happens for a shorter time during the winter break. Payment for work they would normally have had available seems a reasonable answer, but is not on offer. On top of all this, the union has had to file an Unfair Labor Practice charge because the University refuses to bargain over subjects that are mandated for bargaining by law.

Student residence hall workers have also found the risks associated with their position incommensurate with their paltry pay. They need more protection in the form of attention to the dangerous freedom some quarantined students apparently have to wander away from their isolation. They also need higher compensation, both for the hazards they undertake and the longer shifts they are being expected to undertake.

Workers who labor in the classroom have specific concerns as well. The Graduate Employees Organization did manage, after a long effort, to get some of these needs met through impact bargaining that provided graduate employees who are without health insurance during the summer with stipends for health care, paid sick leave, and language that evaluations would take into consider the stressful teaching conditions of the Spring semester. However, they continue to struggle with expenditures for technology required for online teaching that have not been reimbursed by the University, as well as for all graduate workers to have the choice to work from home. Members of the Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition (NTFC Local 6546) also struggle with the capacity for teaching on Zoom, and need some protection for potential disability in the advent they contract COVID-19. Like SEIU, they have had to resort to an Unfair Labor Practice charge, in this case because the University persists in treating as individual issues matters that should be the focus of collective bargaining. Teachers at the University Laboratory (Uni) High School have been concerned about pressures to resume face-to-face teaching, particularly in a poorly ventilated building, but have been able to address these through a Health and Safety Task Force. Like others, they are interested in participating more fully in University COVID-19 decision-making bodies in ways that facilitate attention to the particular vulnerabilities of Uni students and their families, who might be rendered vulnerable by a return to in-class teaching because of  these students’ regular passage between school and home.

The Campus Faculty Association, an advocacy organization for tenure-track faculty, recognizes that compared to some of these other situations, our conditions are relatively privileged, and that faculty from our ranks are represented on task force committees. However, we still have concerns about the difficulties faced by faculty parents teaching from home, faculty needing new technology to accommodate online teaching, and the budget priorities involved in the University’s current pandemic response and more general financial strategies.

In short, in the midst of the University’s widely touted success in addressing the pandemic, many of the workers who make its missions into realities continue to face real needs.  They also raise important questions about why their voices are not incorporated into decision-making practices.  Both their particular concerns and their common demands—for transparency about University pandemic policy regarding case thresholds and future plans as well as union voices on COVID task forces—need timely administrative responses.

Kathryn Oberdeck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois. A longtime member of the Campus Faculty Association, she currently serves as one of the organization’s representatives to the Campus Labor Coalition.

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