Rallying members citywide
As professional staff returned to Hunter College a week before classes started, many shared fears about a lack of ventilation. Some complained that public safety officers weren’t always wearing their masks inside. And some professional staff noted that even though they had medical issues and had been working perfectly well from home since the pandemic began, they were still being called into work and not granted an accommodation.
Some members at Hunter expressed mixed feelings about the return. Daniel Chan, the assistant director at the office of accessability, said he was “feeling ambivalent” about returning to in-person work at Hunter, and that the return felt “whiplashy,” adding that he “was much more productive” working from home because the environment was less stressful. While generally not afraid to return and in a good mood upon his return, Chan brought an air purifier for his workspace, purchased at his expense, as an extra layer of protection against the coronavirus.
Others like Philena Latcha, an athletic trainer at Hunter, told union officials upon her return that she felt safe because of the PSC’s COVID-19 health and safety work. “One of the reasons I felt so comfortable coming back was because of [the union],” she said. “I knew [the PSC] had our backs.”
The union has, indeed, been hard at work ensuring that safety measures are in place at campuses where faculty and staff are returning to in-person work. The union is conducting walk-through inspections, and union officers and organizers have been meeting members on campuses about their concerns on masking, accommodations and spacing on campus.
As a result of union pressure, conditions on most campuses are safer, and with the notable exception of Hunter, much fewer people are present this fall. The problem, according to PSC President James Davis, has been that some campuses have proceeded with reopening less carefully and safely than others. Those that are more problematic continue to have structural problems with their physical plants, such as a lack of ventilation. An issue on some campuses, like Hunter, is that accommodation requests are being routinely rejected. “It’s very uneven,” he said. “CUNY Central has increasingly devolved decision-making onto the campuses.” (See Davis’s remarks, “What is to be done at CUNY?”)
Some CUNY staffers felt that their workspaces were safe and that management provided the proper protective equipment for workers and students. At John Jay College, on the West Side of Manhattan, Mechelle Grayson, a career advisor in the department of public management, told union organizers she felt safe in her office as she walked over to get her weekly COVID-19 test, which was provided in a college building across the street from her building. And many faculty listserves and social media posts testify to the excitement that some feel coming back to in-person teaching.
But questions around CUNY’s communications and policies, and the resultant safety issues on campuses, have consistently arisen in the first weeks of reopening. During a press conference outside CUNY’s headquarters August 24, Cindy Bink, the PSC HEO chapter chair, said, “We are being asked to work face- to- face with people we cannot guarantee are vaccinated and that could have COVID. For those who have loved ones at home, who are immunocompromised, or have health issues themselves, some HR departments are denying their request for 100% remote work. As a result, HEOs are being asked to choose between the health of themselves and their family and their job.”
Worse, for many PSC-represented professional staff, situations like this are easily avoidable, but short-sighted administrators won’t budge, Bink said.
With so many students still studying remotely, mandates that staff nevertheless come to campus make staff feel like they are being treated like props in the play of return-to-work. “Many of us will commute hours and arrive to a poorly ventilated, broken-down buildings, only to sit in front of computer to work remotely [with students],” Bink said.
Within the uneven conditions of reopening, some campuses stand out as particularly troubled. Members rallied at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, where faculty and staff have said that the administration has failed to respond to their concerns about safe reopening. Many members spoke about poor communication from the administration about safety and poor ventilation in buildings.
One adjunct at MEC said that in her building there were “no distancing measures, no schedule to make sure people aren’t in the office at the same time.” A library worker at MEC said that in the library there are “no masks, no wipes, no hand sanitizer,” and added that management “brought one bottle [of sanitizer] and one [packet] of wipes for the whole staff.”
Clinton Crawford, the PSC chapter chair at Medgar Evers, said, “people cannot afford to expose themselves to a place where the ventilation is horrendous at best.” While the chapter voiced concerns about ventilation and distancing over the summer, upon reopening it seemed as if “none of these things were addressed.”
Hunter College has emerged as an outlier in terms of its in-person density on campus: most of the in-person teaching happening in the system is happening at Hunter. To Clarion’s knowledge, a greater percentage of its professional staff has been called back. There were many Hunter College staffers who felt that the administration wasn’t taking proper precautions in terms of accommodations and maintaining physical safety on campus.
Jen Gaboury, the PSC chapter chair at the college, concurred, telling Clarion, “It’s scaring the crap out of us…. We all deserve a lot better from our school.” At a “safe return” rally with more than 75 union members and CUNY students on the first day of in-person classes, Gaboury said that many of Hunter’s reopening plans “don’t follow the CDC guidelines” and have “significant problems with implementation.” Rosa Squillacote, PSC vice president for part-time personnel, said at the rally that “adjuncts and part-time workers…are forced to interpret Hunter’s confusing policies,” while “faculty and staff are in rooms where the only ventilation is an open window, and the union has found that those open windows are often closed.” She added, “Hunter is treating our lives as if they are just numbers on a page.”
While the union has planned other protests, actions and safety inspections, activists like Gaboury believe that with all of the unknowns regarding the Delta variant of the coronavirus, the fight for safety on campuses will be a long one.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
“This is not even the beginning of our struggle and it’s not the end of our struggle,” she said. “We are going to have to fight and struggle across the term and maybe longer to make sure we are staying safe.”
First Vice President Andrea Vásquez noted, “Organizing around health and safety issues has become a top priority for the PSC. We must continue this work that has made us stronger as a union, especially as we push for funding at the federal and state levels and as we begin planning our contract campaign. March 2023 is just around the corner and health and safety issues will be on the table.”