Last updated January 14, 2021
How is the union involved in Rutgers’ decision-making process for COVID-19 protocols?
Representatives of the CRU (Coalition of Rutgers Unions) have been attending weekly Health and Safety meetings with the Rutgers administration to flag issues and engage in ongoing discussions about how to keep worker safety centered in the university’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Has the union taken a stance on when it will be safe to resume in-person instruction?
AFT has published “A Plan to Safely Reopen Schools and Communities.” The plan maintains that successful reopening must include the following: community transmission of COVID-19 is controlled within a particular region; public health infrastructure can effectively identify, track, and isolate COVID-19 cases on campus; and staff belonging to a high-risk category be granted special accommodations. Lastly, unions, students and their families, and community partners must have a seat at the table in the reopening planning process.
It is likely that the state’s vaccine rollout will be directly connected to reopening plans. Currently, the state of New Jersey has a goal of vaccinating 70% of the adult population, approximately 4.7 million people, within six months. Once a large proportion of the population is immune to the virus, the likelihood of person-to-person transmission becomes increasingly unlikely. If distribution occurs within the targeted time frame, we should reach this benchmark by late Spring/early Summer. In the meantime, health care workers should be able to utilize this time to focus on distribution of the vaccine, and social distancing measures should be implemented whenever possible.
While much of Rutgers is planning (and hoping) for in-person instruction in the Fall semester of 2021, there are many contingencies in place. Any final decision will depend on the vaccination program and how well the virus is controlled in our area.
During what phase will Rutgers employees receive the vaccine? Can we receive the vaccine on the Rutgers campus?
Before the end of 2020, New Jersey began vaccinating recipients in Phase 1A, defined as health care workers and long-term care residents. In mid-January, the governor announced that those eligible to receive the vaccine would be expanded to some people identified for Phase 1B, including first responders and individuals at high risk. At this time, those considered high risk are individuals aged 65 and people aged 16–64 with medical conditions that increase the risk of severe illness if they are infected by the coronavirus. For additional information or to review the conditions that fall into the “high risk” category,” visit the state’s webpage on “Who Is Eligible for Vaccination in New Jersey? Who Is Included in the Vaccination Phases?” The state has yet to announce when distribution to subsequent tiers will take place.
If you are a New Jersey resident, you can register now to be notified when you are eligible for vaccination. New York state residents can check here to see whether they are eligible for vaccination. Vaccine information for Pennsylvania residents is available online here.
As of now, neither the Rutgers campus nor Rutgers health care providers have been selected as vaccination sites. The union is working with the state and university on these issues on a continuous basis, and we will continue to provide updates should this change.
We now know that COVID-19 is spread largely through airborne transmission. What is being done about air filtration and ventilation at Rutgers?
Scientists have determined that COVID-19 can be transmitted both through large airborne droplets (which hit the ground within 3–6 feet) as well as smaller droplets, also known as aerosols, that can travel longer distances and remain suspended in the air for long periods. The CDC endorsed the ASHRAE’s “Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which specified that enhanced filtration, utilizing filters with a MERV 13 or higher rating, seem most efficient in removing these particles from the air. Buildings at Rutgers are being assessed for enhanced filtration systems and, where possible, upgraded. For now, keeping occupancy of these buildings to a minimum is still the best defense against further spread.
What enforceable protections are in place for a safe work environment?
Fortunately, the Rutgers AAUP-AFT agreement with the University already contains robust health and safety language. Article 20 ensures that “No negotiations unit member shall be required to work under conditions where there has been a determination, on a reasonable basis in fact, that those conditions pose an imminent danger to health and safety. It shall be the responsibility of the University to make such determinations as rapidly as possible.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, the state has issued a series of executive orders with the aim of mitigating the spread of the virus. Those with the greatest impact on labor were Executive Orders 107 and 192. On March 21, 2020, under EO 107, the governor of New Jersey required all businesses and nonprofit organizations to provide, “wherever practicable,” tele-work or work-from-home accommodations to employees. On October 28, absent any federal guidance from OSHA, the Governor issued EO 192, seeking “increased investigative and enforcement capacity to efficiently address worker complaints.” Under this order, workers are now able to report breakdowns in mandated employer COVID protocols established in this and other executive orders.
My position requires me to come to campus, and I have some concerns about COVID protocols at my work site. What are my options for reporting my concerns?
If you have concerns about your work site, the first thing you should do is contact the union and discuss your options with a member of the contract enforcement team. There are several reporting avenues available, and the union can help you determine what may be most effective in finding resolution. To contact a union representative, email email@example.com.
Some of the reporting options are as follows:
- If an Article 20 Health and Safety violation is identified, you may be able to file a grievance under the Article 9 grievance procedure.
- A Rutgers Observation Reporting Form can be submitted, by a named complainant or anonymously, directly to the university. You should submit this form to report any concerns at all, whether or not you also report these concerns to the union.
- A PEOSH (Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health) Complaint Form can be submitted by a named complaitant, anonymously, or by the union directly to the Department of Labor.
Will the vaccine be mandatory at Rutgers?
It is unlikely that the vaccine will be mandatory for employees at Rutgers, at least as long as it remains in “emergency use authorization.” The administration has advised that they don’t currently expect to mandate vaccination for all employees, but it is possible this could change.
We don’t yet know whether vaccination will be mandatory for students. Rutgers administration is considering options and will be conforming to state policy and guidance on this matter. There is information about the current vaccination policy for students available online here.
For more information on the vaccine, this fact sheet from the state contains a lot of helpful information and links to additional resources.
Are there job protections for anyone who requires time off because they have contracted COVID-19?
Under New Jersey law, employers cannot impose discipline or termination, nor subject an employee to any form of discrimination, if an employee requires time away to quarantine or seek testing due to COVID-19. It is important to note that the employee must be able to produce a note from a medical professional instructing them to quarantine or seek testing.
If I become ill with COVID-19, will I have to use my accrued paid time off (PTO)? What about if I need to care for a child or family member with COVID-19?
Many of the federal programs that supplemented income for an employee requiring time away from work due to COVID expired at the end of 2020. The current Rutgers policy requires that an employee use their own PTO (including, if applicable, sick time or sick leave, close ranks, and vacation) in the event of a required COVID leave. We are working with the administration to determine if an alternative policy can be reached. Federal policy may also change.
If you require time away from work to care for a family member, you can always take leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. You can find out more about leaves in Article 16 of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT agreement with Rutgers. It’s possible you may also qualify for New Jersey’s Family Leave insurance program. The New Jersey Department of Labor has an online eligibility tool to determine what protections and benefits may apply to your circumstances.