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Letter on Coronavirus to CUNY Chancellor

Mar 10, 2020

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Colleagues:

On Friday, March 6 I sent the message below to Chancellor Matos-Rodríguez asserting the union’s right to information about health and safety procedures during the coronavirus epidemic and our right to negotiate over any changes in employment conditions in response to the virus. [The Chancellor’s written response is posted here.]

Thank you for the messages we have received reporting on issues that have arisen on your campuses. Members have expressed concern not only for themselves but also for vulnerable students and colleagues. The union principle that an injury to one is an injury to all is literally true now. Please take good care of yourself.

I will provide updates as we receive more information and as we enter into negotiations. Please read the letter, and know that your union is stepping in to insist that our rights and our workplaces are protected.

In solidarity,

Barbara Bowen, PSC President

___________________________________________________________

March 6, 2020

Chancellor Felix V. Matos-Rodriguez
City University of New York
205 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017

Dear Chancellor Matos-Rodríguez:

With a half-million students and nearly 50,000 faculty and staff, many of whom work in close proximity to each other and some of whom already endure significant health stress, CUNY has an urgent responsibility to issue a comprehensive plan in response to the occurrence of COVID-19 in New York. The PSC has the legal right to be part of discussions of those plans as they affect the health and safety and the terms and conditions of employment of the faculty and staff we represent.

I am writing with a formal request to bargain concerning the University’s procedures for maintaining a safe and healthy workplace and concerning changes in employment provisions that may be necessary in the event that normal work schedules are disrupted.

The PSC recognizes that the University has created a website dedicated to coronavirus procedures and that Human Resources has sent communications to the CUNY community. We also appreciate that you have created a Coronavirus Task Force, although we need more information about the composition of the task force and its purview. And we understand that many CUNY officials are devoting substantial energy to trying to respond.

The PSC does not underestimate the difficulty of preparing CUNY for a potential pandemic in New York, especially when the University is already suffering from austerity funding. But CUNY management must anticipate the questions and needs that will arise. A comprehensive plan, with relevant issues negotiated with the union, will not only protect PSC members but enable all of us to work with a greater sense of safety and clarity. Although the risk of contracting COVID-19 remains low, lives are potentially at stake.

Since February 13, the PSC executive director has repeatedly sought answers to questions about employment protocols, pay for hourly workers, hand-washing facilities and other issues, but she has not received satisfactory answers. While University management has taken steps regarding travel and other concerns, management has so far failed to address the full range of issues confronting the faculty and staff or to recognize the union’s legal role as a partner in developing certain plans.

For instance, the University’s website assures us that “CUNY is giving all facilities extra attention in terms of restocking hand sanitizers, soaps and other cleaning supplies and ensuring that there are plenty of locations throughout common areas where students, faculty and staff can wash or sanitize their hands.” Yet just yesterday a faculty member at City Tech reported a campus bathroom with sinks that had no running water at all, and colleagues across the University have sent the PSC reports of bathrooms without soap or drying facilities. The promised signs on hand-washing have yet to appear in many places. While there is an urgent need for such facilities right now, CUNY students, staff and faculty should not have to wait for the threat of a pandemic to get basic sanitary facilities in college bathrooms.

As another example, the website and communications from the CUNY administration appear not to have addressed how the University will make provisions for payment of adjunct and hourly employees in the event classes are cancelled or rescheduled, or for the special needs of faculty and staff who are immuno-compromised. I have received numerous communications from faculty and staff who have pre-existing health conditions that put them at risk, such as lung disease or cancer. This morning I heard from a faculty member who has learned that a student in one of her classes lives in a community where many residents, including the student’s immediate family members, are being tested by health authorities because of possible exposure to coronavirus. The instructor urgently needs guidance on whether there are any measures she should take.

These questions, and many others, must be answered. Our members cannot be expected to put their employment or their health at risk.

Therefore the PSC urgently requests negotiations, and we are committed to do our utmost to make the negotiations productive on behalf of our members. The issues we seek to discuss include those listed below.

  • Does CUNY currently have a comprehensive crisis-management plan that specifically addresses readiness for a potential pandemic? If so, does the plan incorporate scenarios for various levels of illness among students and employees and types of community containment interventions?
  • Has CUNY identified the essential crisis-management personnel and their roles? We believe that a list of such personnel was developed during Hurricane Sandy, but we need to understand whether it has been updated.
  • Has a pandemic response team been developed, indicating defined roles and responsibilities and the union(s) as stakeholders? We recognize that there is a CUNY-wide task force on the coronavirus and that there may be college-level response teams, but we need more information.
  • What policies and procedures has the University developed for early identification and isolation of suspected or confirmed cases?

CUNY’s comprehensive plan and college-based plans should address the elements below, which CUNY is obliged by law to discuss with the union:

  • What practices are in place for regular and rigorous cleaning and decontamination of surfaces and equipment, including keyboards, door knobs and other areas?
  • What disinfectants are being used, what protections are in place for those using them, what training has been provided, and what safety data sheets are being kept?
  • Are there plans to ensure continuity of instruction in the event any campuses are closed or classes rescheduled? We are aware that the University’s website mentions the availability of resources for online instruction, but is there a plan for how large numbers of classes could be quickly switched to distance technology?
  • In the event that distance learning technologies are required for classes normally taught face to face, have provisions been made for the thousands of CUNY students who do not have access to computers at home and for the faculty who have not had experience with online instruction?
  • Will the University ensure that adjunct faculty and other hourly employees receive full pay even if work schedules are disrupted in response to the virus?
  • Has the University made provisions for faculty and staff who are immuno-compromised and may need to seek accommodations in order to remain safe?
  • Has the University developed policies and procedures on employee sick leave that are unique to a pandemic?
  • Is there a continuity-of-operations plan, including payroll, security, maintenance, the special needs of science labs, and ongoing communications in the event of required closures?
  • Is there a plan to disseminate information about preparedness? Is there an emergency communications plan? Have preparedness sessions been scheduled to inform faculty, staff and students?

The PSC and CUNY management have worked cooperatively together in the past to address urgent issues, and I believe we can do so again. We share many goals. I request an answer as soon as possible to when negotiations and discussions with the union can begin.

Yours sincerely,

Barbara Bowen
President, PSC

cc:

Members of the PSC Bargaining Unit
Mr. Henry Garrido, Executive Director, AFSCME District Council 37
Mr. Vincent Alvarez, President, New York City Central Labor Council


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