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CUNY worksites must be proven safe

Aug 27, 2020

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I hope you are well and that you’ve been able to take some time for yourselves before the start of the semester. This summer has been hard for all of us, I suspect-emotionally as well as intellectually.

As classes at most CUNY colleges begin, the issue on many of our minds is the reopening of schools, colleges and CUNY. The CUNY administration recently announced that 96 percent of classes this fall will be conducted remotely and that the University’s goal is to have no more than 10 percent of CUNY employees on campus at any one time, although the number may go as high as 25 percent. Many PSC members were relieved to hear that news, especially after we had spent months reconfiguring our classes and other responsibilities for distance technology. Some faculty and staff whose research requires access to a lab feel an understandable urgency about being able to return to campus, and others point out that their disciplines require students to complete hands-on training in order to receive certification. All of us are eager to support our students and keep them engaged with their courses.

The PSC leadership understands the urgency of time-sensitive research grants and wholly supports the concern for research, teaching and student progress. We are aware that some colleges have developed plans for reopening specifically for research purposes. But if even one PSC member, CUNY employee or CUNY student is on campus, the building in which they are located must be safe. CUNY cannot risk a surge in COVID-19.

The University has an obligation under the law, affirmed in our contract, to “furnish to each of its employees who is covered by this agreement a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm to its employees.” The CUNY administration has not provided the information necessary to establish that it has met its obligation and that the worksites it plans to reopen are safe.

There is a history of unsafe conditions at CUNY and a reason that the union cannot simply accept management assurances that everything will be safe.
Decades of underfunding and racialized austerity have resulted in University buildings characterized-long before the pandemic struck-by insufficient ventilation, poor water systems, inadequate hand-washing facilities, untreated mold and other hazardous conditions. The college reopening plans the union leadership has seen largely follow the Department of Health guidelines on providing PPE and arranging for social distancing. Some are very carefully formulated and include the necessary specificity on the buildings and rooms that will be in use.

But many of the plans appear to be inadequate on exactly the issue that has emerged as the key to indoor safety: ventilation. CUNY has many buildings where ventilation has long been inadequate, and it is not clear that the conditions have been ameliorated and that the more stringent standards needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been met. What’s needed is a room-by-room assessment, not a general statement about precautions. The stakes are high, especially in New York City.

The CUNY administration has not yet provided copies of the final reopening plans to the union and refused to provide the union with all the draft plans. Without an opportunity to review the plans before classes start, the PSC’s health and safety experts cannot fully assess whether every worksite will be safe. Our experts are working now to assess the plans we have.

While several colleges have made good-faith efforts and have been responsive to union representatives, many have not. Union members appreciate the efforts at those colleges, and they offer important models. But CUNY central has pursued a de-centralized approach and has refused to accept responsibility for ensuring that every college complies with the New York State requirement that college reopening plans “reflect engagement with campus stakeholders,” including faculty, staff and unions.

CUNY’s refusal to provide sufficient information, coupled with a history of failure to keep buildings safe and a failure to ensure compliance at every college with the State requirement on union engagement, left the PSC no choice but to call on CUNY officials not to open any worksite until they can provide evidence that that worksite will be safe.

Last Thursday, I sent a letter with that demand to Chancellor Matos Rodríguez and Chairperson of the CUNY Board of Trustees William Thompson. And on Friday, I joined lawmakers, students, industrial hygiene experts and PSC leaders at a press conference to demand that CUNY delay in-person activities until buildings are proven to be safe places to work during the pandemic. Video of the press conference is posted here; coverage appeared in the NY Daily News and other sources.

With the semester about to begin, the union has yet to receive a response from the CUNY administration. But we have learned that some of the draft plans have been scaled back this week to limit even further the number of classes held on campus.

What should you do if you have been scheduled to work on campus?
Contact the union immediately and give us the details of your hours and place of work. Let us know if you have been designated an “essential worker” without prior notification. Union health and safety experts are assessing the information we have about each college’s reopening plan now, and we will be in touch with you about what is needed to keep you safe.

No one wants more disruption and delay, but far worse would be a resurgence of COVID-19 that could have been prevented. Many of us may feel safe because we haven’t been called in to on-site work yet. The union has no indication, however, of who may be called in as the semester develops. Even those of us who feel safe may have to take a stand for those who are not.

The union cannot allow CUNY to put the lives of our members, our students and our families at risk by calling us back to work in conditions that have not been demonstrated to be safe. The PSC will continue to press CUNY to fulfill its legal and contractual obligation to keep the workplace safe. Union advocacy has clearly made a difference already, but we remain prepared to use every option in order to keep our members safe. Saving lives comes first.

Thank you for your support throughout the summer, and best wishes for the new academic year.

In solidarity,
Barbara Bowen
President, PSC

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