Susan Fountain, left, of the PSC Health and Safety Watchdogs, with Rachel Cholst, an academic advisor at CUNY Start. (Photo Credit: Dave Sanders)
Five out of six basement offices for CUNY Start at Hostos Community College lacked proper ventilation, the PSC Health and Safety Watchdogs found in a mid-August PSC Vent Squad assessment with the college’s administration present. Several weeks later, Hostos administration did their own assessment, found inadequate ventilation in the same offices and fixed the issues causing poor airflow.
“The fact that [management] went back to those spaces and assessed those spaces and did something right in those spaces is really positive,” Craig Bernardini, the PSC Hostos Chapter Chair and a professor of English, told Clarion. Bernardini attended the ventilation squad assessment, where college administration accompanied union officials. “But we have to close the loop. We have to go back to members and say, ‘Okay, right, are you noticing a difference?’”
Closing the loop means talking to people like Rachel Cholst, an academic advisor at CUNY Start and a PSC member who works in one of the offices cited for improper ventilation. In the vent squad assessment, PSC watchdogs found that one of the two vents in her office was not receiving proper airflow. Hostos officials fixed the problem and now the vent has sufficient airflow.
“[There’s] an overpowering air current directly over my desk. It’s freezing in here, but I’ll take that over the alternative,” Cholst told Clarion.
CUNY Start is an academic program that prepares students for college-level courses in key subject areas, including English and math. Cholst started working at CUNY Start in 2016, and she noticed that she was coming down with respiratory colds about every two months no matter what time of year, forcing her to call in sick. And her coworkers would get sick periodically, too.
Cholst described her work conditions as gloomy, unhealthy and at times unpleasant. “CUNY Start works in a windowless basement with a door that leads directly into the faculty parking lot. During particularly heavy summer storms, the parking lot floods the hallway and the surge in stormwater causes the toilets to overflow as it makes its way through the pipes,” Cholst said. “At times, the office can be stuffy, and at others it can be freezing.”
Flooding and lack of air weren’t the only health and safety problems for the basement offices where CUNY Start relocated to in 2015 to accommodate the expanding program’s need for more space.
THE SMELL OF EXHAUST
“Early on, problems crept up,” said Anitta Santiago, a reading and writing instructor with CUNY Start. “A smell of exhaust would permeate the classrooms, black dust would fall from the vents and some students and staff were experiencing headaches and fatigue after several hours in the basement.”
Santiago said that they met with management, who were empathetic, but failed to truly fix the problems. The smell of exhaust came from trucks illegally idling outside near the building intake; trucks were told not to idle there. Later, other smells, including the smell of marijuana would permeate the classroom air. Flooding in the bathroom was “fixed” by blocking bathrooms on days of expected rain. This summer, CUNY Start employees raised concerns because their office seemed too warm. In July, the chapter did an informal walk-through with the CUNY Start Director Andrea Gabbidon-Levene to identify health and safety issues in the CUNY Start space.
During the August 15 vent squad assessment of the Hostos CUNY Start offices, the team took measurements from ceiling supply vents with an anemometer, a handheld device that measures airflow. The team also measured carbon dioxide levels, temperature and relative humidity.
By the end of September, the issues were fixed.
“Hostos Community College takes the health and safety of its faculty, staff, and students to be of the utmost importance. All issues regarding ventilation raised by the CUNY Start office have been reviewed and addressed,” said a Hostos College spokesperson, who added that the college plans to install new air handling units on all floors of the building, and urged members who have a health and safety concern to contact the college’s environmental health and safety director.
It is the employer’s responsibility, not the union’s, to provide a safe and healthy workspace, but it often takes union pressure to force management to do the right thing. In the case of CUNY, the union’s vent squad provided the informed assessment that prompted change.
“We want to gather that data to encourage that responsibility to show them that there is an issue, [where] they need to take whatever action that is needed to get better ventilation in the spaces our members are working,” said Susan Fountain, the PSC Environmental Health and Safety Watchdogs coordinator who led the ventilation assessment at the CUNY Start offices at Hostos. “We want [management] to get to the root of the problem.”
Poor ventilation can cause health problems, such as airborne illnesses, including colds and COVID-19, and it can cause a buildup of carbon dioxide, which can cause headaches and fatigue. The CUNY Start community was not immune to those issues, members noted, with repeated chest colds and chronic headaches and fatigue. Cholst does note that since the improvements took place this semester, she has not had a chest cold with the same severity that she did pre-pandemic when she worked in the office.
But the CUNY Start ventilation problem is not the only health and safety issue on campus at Hostos. The PSC Hostos Chapter has been actively taking on health and safety issues, from early concerns about lack of personal protection equipment, inadequate ventilation and better scheduling to ensure proper social distancing in the college’s Dental Clinic in the Fall of 2020 to a needed HVAC upgrade in a rented building where CUNY CLIP instructors work.
HEALTH AND SAFETY ORGANIZING
In June 2020, the local PSC chapter set up a health and safety committee that conducted a chapter-wide survey on health and safety issues on the campus. More than 100 members responded. By the Spring of 2022, the committee began a semi-regular dispatch on campus issues to members.
“Overall, working with the administration has been a mixed experience,” said Haruko Yamauchi, the PSC Hostos Chapter Health and Safety Committee chair and a library teaching coordinator. “We vacillate between a wary attempt to make progress together and utter exasperation on both sides.”
Health and safety advocacy has prompted more member involvement at Hostos, chapter leaders said. When CUNY campuses were partially reopening, Bernardini noted that PSC Hostos Chapter meetings doubled in attendance.
“It’s one of these issues that touches on every title,” said Bernardini. “Because we all, in one way or another, are going to be in the classrooms and our offices working.”
Bernardini notes that there’s no golden road of steady progress when working with management, but it’s a give-and-take with a certain amount of pushback.
He did say that there is one necessary ingredient to successful campaign organizing.
“Being relentless,” Bernardini said. “Staying on top of [an issue], that’s going to allow us to get the gains that we need with members.”
Published: November 21, 2022
Last Modified: November 30, 2022