Clarion Masthead

Health and safety in a pandemic

Members take the lead

In the fall, PSC members at Hunter College Campus Schools mobilized against an unsafe reopening plan.
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The current COVID-19 public health crisis has amplified health and safety concerns across CUNY, where an aging infrastructure, lack of proper ventilation, outdated HVAC systems, mold and air quality problems and inadequate climate control are perennial issues.

“Funding has always been part of the issue for repair,” said Jacqueline Elliot, a cochair of the PSC Health and Safety Watchdogs. “Now that we are dealing with COVID, which has taken us to an all-time high of concern, we are in a life-threatening situation every time [a member] go[es] into work.”

EXPERT RECOMMENDATIONS

In response to the crisis, the PSC Health and Safety Watchdogs began regular weekly meetings in April of last year, eventually moving to meetings every other week in September. A typical meeting averaged around 50 participants from across the CUNY system, all brought together to discuss pressing health and safety concerns. As the crisis continued, the Watchdogs developed guides based on state and expert recommendations and developed a “COVID is Airborne” initiative that sought specific information about each occupied building’s ventilation system. (These guides are available on the PSC website.)

The CUNY administration’s response to COVID has lacked central coordination. There is no consistent definition of an essential worker, and there is no uniform policy for calling CUNY employees back to work. With more and more members returning to on-campus work, a major union concern continues to be adequate and ongoing testing.

“CUNY offers our on-campus members 45 minutes to get to a Health and Hospital site to get COVID tested. And there is no COVID testing for students. This is insane,” said Joan Greenbaum, a retired Graduate Center and LaGuardia Community College professor of environmental psychology who is active on the Watchdogs committee. “Other colleges test everyone once a week. We have a long time before the vaccine is rolled out to everyone and, even after that, COVID testing is essential on a frequent basis.”

Below, PSC members who have been active on health and safety issues this past year share their concerns.

Back in March and April we didn’t have much information from the Hostos Community College administration. People were scared – HEOs, CLTs, college assistants and faculty. They were scared of being called back on campus, and many people reached out to [the PSC] with concerns.

Even before the pandemic, Hostos had serious ventilation issues in its buildings. Throughout the crisis, students and faculty in the dental hygiene, nursing and X-ray programs have been coming in, and the dental hygiene program provides direct, close-quarters medical care to our community through its free clinic. After much insistence, we were able to get an industrial hygienist to evaluate the quality of Dental’s HVAC system. That was a major intervention.

We also hosted a forum for the college community and surveyed their issues and concerns. Maintenance workers were only given one mask per week; only in the December labor-management meeting were we finally told they could ask for more. Student success coaches were told to come back to campus once a week, even though their advising would still be remote, which made no sense. Only through union pressure and the coaches speaking up for themselves was this requirement dropped.

A CLEAR PLAN?

The biggest problem overall with Hostos administration is a lack of communication and transparency. The union has been asking for documentation of HVAC upgrades for months, and the campus reopening committee – which includes our PSC chapter rep – did not meet all fall.

We must insist on more dialogue in the coming months as we think about the reopening of campus. There must be a clear and reasonable plan, not just bringing people back haphazardly. It’s important for members to be engaged and to stay in touch with their union. The PSC is all of us.
The bottom line is everybody wants to come to a safe, clean, and healthy work environment.

Lizette Colón
Lecturer
Counseling
Hostos Community College

Yvette Luyando
Executive Administrator of Enrollment Support
Office of Student Development and Enrollment Management
Hostos Community College

Haruko Yamauchi
Associate Professor
Library Teaching Coordinator
Hostos Community College

As a clinical l lab scientist, I deal a lot with lab safety and lab protocol. In 2017 when I was elected as a PSC delegate, I decided to chair the campus’s Health and Safety Committee.

I quickly realized that there was a disconnect with the PSC membership and contacting the union about health and safety concerns. I created an online platform where members could anonymously report health and safety violations to us and include pictures. I would go to the area, take pictures, and along with the committee, devise a plan to tackle it. We also had to see if work orders were submitted prior to contacting the union and that essentially removed anonymity. We’ve had some successes; we’ve had some impasses.

We were able to secure an independent walk-through of two major Bronx Community College (BCC) buildings and inspect the compliance to BCC’s reoccupancy plan and the PSC’s health and safety guidelines. In late November, I went along with some key administrators and found some faculty and staff areas that did not comply with the BCC reoccupancy plan. There were several locations without proper signs and no safety dividers between faculty and students. There were also some areas where the college was doing things right. During the walk-through, we were able to devise ways that they could solve the problems. They agreed to do it.

One of the successes has been coming to administration with solutions. Administration never created a solution, and it would lead to an impasse. I know it goes against our training; it’s CUNY’s responsibility to address the problems. But I’ve created a template that seems to be working. I draft an email to key administrators, identify the problem, describe how it is a violation, explain its adverse effects and propose resolutions. For example, if there’s a strong smell of mold and mildew, I explain how, according to the CDC that can lead to respiratory illnesses, including breathing issues and shortness of breath. I say that we’d like the problem remediated. I just make sure it is not abstract but that it’s very factual. It’s not necessarily a militant action, I go about it scientifically.

Diane Price Banks
Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences
Program Director, Medical Laboratory Technician Program
Bronx Community College

I came into health and safety issues because of the pandemic. I saw a vacuum, and I filled it. In mid-March, CUNY abruptly moved classes online and everyone had the idea CUNY was closed. It wasn’t. Libraries, research facilities and dorms were among the places open. I became involved with the PSC Library Committee and CUNY Libraries COVID-19 Task Force, which was organized by CUNY Central and the Council of Chief Librarians.

People believe libraries are low-risk environments, not just at CUNY, but everywhere. But they’re not. You’re interacting with the public. We’re often invisible: people see the book, not the library worker. One campus opening affects every other campus. We were hearing from librarians at the College of Staten Island, Queens College, and a lot of places that just were not closed. We were in this moment of panic and had to shout to anyone who would listen. The trauma of that closure and that it was not centrally coordinated has really, really been incredibly frustrating and demoralizing.

As a campus committee, we’re paying attention to the ventilation system: What are the settings? What are the capabilities? You can ask the questions and get the written responses, but you can’t independently verify if that is happening. There are things that one can see in person, but right now, the Graduate Center is pretty much locked down.

TRANSPARENCY AND UNION INPUT

We want assurance from administration that they have created a low-risk environment with union input and transparency that we can understand. We want union members to know the safety measures in place and to inform their chapter leadership if they’re going in to work or being asked to go in. If they have any concerns, there are fellow union members behind them who can help them get answers.

Roxanne Shirazi
Assistant Professor
Dissertation Research Librarian
The Graduate Center

To get involved with the PSC Environmental Health and Safety Committee or ask health and safety questions, email hswatchdogs@pscmail.org. Detailed health and safety guides are available at psc-cuny.org/about-us/environmental-health-and-safety and psc-cuny.org/covid-19. The Watchdogs meet every other Thursday at 3:30 pm. For meeting dates, visit psc-cuny.org/calendar.