On Friday, June 19th, you should have received an email from the Rutgers administration with a link to their report entitled Returning to Rutgers. If you’ve had a chance to look at the report, you likely have many questions. This report does not address decision-making about when on-campus operations might resume, but it does suggest certain changes we can expect to see when most of us do return to campus. We’ve heard from many of you already and we know that the report has caused a great deal of anxiety and alarm.
The Coalition of Rutgers Unions was given access to a draft of this report, and we raised numerous questions, most of which were not answered in the final version. This report has been issued just as national attention has focused again on the grave dangers posed by reopening while the first wave of the pandemic has still not ended, not to mention the threat of a second wave in the fall. The stakes for all of us, but especially for staff asked to resume on-campus work even if the bulk of classes remain remote, are too high to accept the plan of an administration that has shown it will not involve our unions and community in crucial decisions.
At a late afternoon meeting on Monday, June 22, the Coalition of Rutgers Unions asked Rutgers HR about the COVID-19 testing policy, as mentioned in the separate “Return to Research” document of May 29. Shockingly, HR responded they hadn’t seen this report or the policy, and they were unsure whether a testing policy currently exists. Needless to say, this is alarming given that our members are being told to comply with a testing protocol as they are asked to return to lab-based research.
A few of the additional key issues that we highlighted as we tried to represent your concerns to management are:
- Operational Planning: We all know that each building on campus is unique, from its HVAC system to its elevators. Rutgers management is insistent that they will not be able to create specific operational plans for each building. Rather, the plans will be general and will not address specific needs in each building. This is yet another reason for unions representing employees who work in these buildings to shape our reopening plan. These are our classrooms and our labs. They don’t belong to senior management with titles like Chief Operating Officer, sitting in distant executive offices. Our input is critical.
- Training: We emphasized that best practice requires in-person training, so employees have the opportunity to learn new protocols, from hand-washing to distancing requirements, in the building where they will actually be working. Rutgers has decided instead to utilize online-only training that will not be specific to the building where you work. We understand that the University will require us to take training modules created by the same company that provides our insufficient sexual harassment training, in spite of our insistence that it is ineffective. Let’s get training right by doing it in person (and we should revisit the sexual harassment training soon and get that right, too).
- HVAC: Those of us who work at Rutgers know that our buildings have numerous heating, ventilation, and air conditioning problems caused by years of underfunding, deferred maintenance, and short-staffing. We shared evidence-based advice from experts, but as you can see, the final Returning to Rutgers report is quite vague and raises concerns. Again, these are our work spaces and our input should be sought out and respected.
- Testing and Contact Tracing: We have shared additional concerns about how testing will be implemented and how reporting will be handled. We have learned that people in different targeted departments have received communications that they have been sent, or will be sent, the Rutgers COVID-19 saliva tests by mail. The protocol for these tests, including the privacy of test results, has not been made clear to us, and we will continue to communicate as we learn more. If you receive anything from the University, please contact your union. Rutgers is also hiring new staff to do contact tracing at the same time that more than 1,000 union members have been laid off for “lack of work.” We should be retraining our current colleagues to keep them employed, with continued access to health care and tuition remission for their children.
- Personal Protective Equipment: We have shared concerns – via Coalition labor-management meetings, as well as direct unit level labor-management meetings – about Rutgers’ inability or unwillingness to provide the proper PPE that employees need to do their jobs safely. Rutgers has routinely refused to share information about PPE inventory, fit testing, and uniform guidelines for what should happen in cases where standard PPE does not work for an employee. We have also had to report both expired and counterfeit PPE.
We will continue to monitor the situation, and our coalition will be bargaining with management over the impact of new policies and procedures. We need your input about your specific concerns for the time when you are asked to return to on-site work; please fill out this form and tell us what’s on your mind. We’ll be collecting information in a more detailed survey soon. Please keep in mind that you have the right to refuse unsafe work. You should keep in touch with your union with questions and concerns as they come up; you can always reach us via the contact information on our website.
Ryan Novosielski, Co-President, HPAE Local 5094
Justin O’Hea, Co-President, HPAE Local 5094
Cynthia McDougall, President, HPAE Local 5089
Sabrina Brown-Oliver, Vice-President, HPAE Local 5089