Almost two weeks after University of Maryland employees returned to work following their spring break, the union that represents them has some outstanding concerns.
For one, union leaders and members say they still haven’t received copies of the university’s infectious disease response protocol and departmental emergency response plans. They also worry that these employees haven’t been provided with the training, sanitation supplies and protective gear they need to do their job safely during the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 3 is hopeful that many of these issues will be resolved this week. Union members and leaders spoke over the phone in a conference call with state representatives and university officials on Friday, laying out action steps they’d like administrators to take to better protect the health and safety of employees.
“We have an awful lot of work to do in the next week,” said Todd Holden, an AFSCME shop steward and computer science department web services developer. “I’m pretty confident that we’re going to see some progress.”
Indeed, on Monday, Human Resources Assistant Vice President Jewel Washington sent AFSCME a list of staff members who are expected to spend time on the campus in the current and coming weeks — something the union says it requested on March 22.
Although the university has “significantly reduced on-campus activity,” Washington wrote, certain services still need to be done on-site. For instance, the university continues to provide housing and dining for students who remain on the campus, care for animals, receive deliveries and process payments that cannot be done remotely.
Still, Washington wrote the university has transitioned “as many functions as are feasible” to operate online or remotely, allowing many employees to work from home. In the coming weeks, 386 staff members — 11 percent of the employees AFSCME represents — will be expected to work on campus in some capacity, either on a rotating schedule or providing services if and when they’re needed, Washington wrote.
“This is a challenging time for everyone,” Washington wrote. “My staff and I continue to closely monitor federal, state and local guidance, and the university will continue to adapt to evolving conditions, always with a focus on the health, safety and wellbeing of our community.”
Still, the union is concerned that some employees are reporting to work on campus when there isn’t an urgent need for them to be there — even though University Human Resources sent an email on March 17 urging all workers, except those required to be on campus, to “stay away.”
“We want you to stay home, telework, and practice social distancing,” the email read.
But AFSCME says the urgency and concern expressed in the email didn’t make its way down to all supervisors. Last Tuesday, Ulric Bethel, a cook at the South Campus Dining Hall, said around 18 Dining Services employees were called in to serve what ended up being about 25 students. The next day, he said managers reduced the number of workers at the diner.
This week, 13 employees represented by AFSCME will be reporting to work in the dining hall, a university spokesperson wrote in an email — never all at the same time. Anyone who enters the building is also required to use hand sanitizer and employees have been provided with gloves and other protective equipment, such as face masks, the spokesperson wrote.
Furthermore, students are not permitted to “dine in” at the dining hall and social distancing is being enforced for both students and staff, the spokesperson wrote. The university has encouraged employees to stay home if they feel sick and has made clear that nobody is required to work, the spokesperson added.
The union is also requesting that administrators exercise tighter control on who is able to enter buildings at the university and to communicate that only those with “explicit permission” are allowed to be on campus — mirroring actions taken by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Baltimore County faculty and staff members who haven’t been given permission to be on campus, but who need to access their offices, must call the campus police department to do so, according to the university’s website.
Additionally, AFSCME would like the university to share its infectious disease management plan, as well as all departmental emergency operations plans. Understanding the protocols now in place to respond to the pandemic will help the union ensure that all workers are being protected, Holden said. COVID-19 response protocols should be available in Spanish as well as in English, he added.
The union has also outlined additional safety guidelines it would like the university to implement for those responsible for cleaning campus buildings.
Louise Ouattara, a housekeeper in Elkton Hall, said she hasn’t received any specific training on how to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic from her supervisor. She said she and her coworkers have been provided with gloves and surgical masks — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated does not provide protection from inhaling small airborne particles, such as viruses and bacteria.
AFSCME is requesting that staff be provided with CDC-recommended protective gear — such as N95 masks, gowns and gloves — should they be asked to clean on-campus facilities. Housekeepers like Ouattara should also be provided additional advice for how to keep themselves healthy while doing their jobs, AFSCME says, including guidance on properly removing gloves and masks.
Ouattara is set to return to work on April 6. She lives with her two sons, and doesn’t want to contract the virus and bring it back to her family.
“We just want to be safe when we go in,” she said.
Apart from requests regarding the working conditions of employees on campus, AFSCME also wants the university to open up a more “substantive conversation” surrounding telework. Many employees are working remotely for the first time, and Holden said there can be some anxiety surrounding whether they’ll be able to do their jobs effectively.
“We just want to make sure that as we’re all working through this together, that employees are given support, training resources and basically an amount of assurance that them trying their best in these circumstances of crisis are going to be sufficient,” he said.
Holden also emphasized that there’s a real opportunity for the union and the university to work together in helping to keep everybody safe — AFSCME represents thousands of employees on campus and has its “finger on the pulse” of what their days look like. Through its reporting system, the union can hear from workers about what their concerns are and what should be done to better support them.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe, one of the three state representatives who participated in the conference call, praised AFSCME for organizing the conversation and student affairs vice president Patty Perillo for listening to employee concerns. He echoed Holden’s comments on the union’s ability to provide university leadership with information about what things look like on the ground.
“I thought it was a very productive call,” Rosapepe said. “It showed the value of the union — not just to the members of the union, but to management.”
AFSCME representatives, university officials and legislators have another conference call scheduled for April 3 to follow up on issues raised in their first conversation. Celina Sargusingh, another employee on the first phone call, expressed her gratitude to lawmakers for hearing the union’s concerns.
“This is a horrible situation, but our voices matter,” she said. “We just need to come together and make these changes for the benefit of everyone — including the university.”