Takeaway: The virus outbreak among Rutgers football players and staff demonstrates that the administration’s plans to control the spread of the virus are dangerously inadequate. Judging from the reports of union members pressured to return to on-site work—or who never left—management’s reopening “plan“ is a confusing mess that could endanger the health of all of us—members, our families, students, patients, the community. This is unacceptable, and our union has joined other members of the Coalition of Rutgers Unions in demanding negotiations over health and safety. If you are asked to return to any Rutgers workspace and fear for your safety, contact our union at [email protected] for advice. Also, the coalition has developed a survey for all union members so we can better represent your concerns at the bargaining table and beyond; contact [email protected] for a link to the survey.
Last month, Rutgers’ central administration published a “living” document entitled “Returning to Rutgers: A How-To Guide to Repopulating Rutgers Spaces” that they promised would guide the university’s reopening plans. Members of the Coalition of Rutgers Unions’ (CRU) Health and Safety Committee responded to it quickly. In an 11-page review, our Committee specified resources the university might use to address concerns in the areas of ventilation, water system maintenance, protocols for ill employees and vulnerable populations, cleaning, transportation, transparency, and more.
Our overarching concern was that the reopening document read like a summary of principles and strategies that would guide a reopening, but lacked specific details. Who will do the essential work across the hundreds of buildings and dozens of Rutgers spaces to be repopulated? Would existing jobs be altered? How will we be hired, trained, or supported? Only once these questions are addressed can employees at Rutgers feel their health and safety concerns will be satisfied. The work of our committee continues, so we’re asking members to complete the CRU’s Health and Safety Survey to ensure committee members are fully informed about your concerns for reopening Rutgers; contact [email protected] for a link to the survey.
As of today, what we do know is that a considerable number of Rutgers employees are already returning to their workspaces (many never left) and finding them dangerously ill-equipped, just as they feared. Even though there is a telecommuting policy in place as part of the reopening, it is being left to individual supervisors to determine whether employees can work from home. This means a supervisor in one building or wing could require their employees to work on-site while a neighboring supervisor opts to keep staff at home.
Rutgers refuses to detail building-specific guidelines for reopening and to give supervisors clear guidance on how to make these calls, and they have failed to include our members in developing plans. Since March, HPAE and CIR health workers, Teamster transportation workers, CWA communication workers, and others have informed top administrators that they have been forced to work without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). This jeopardizes not only their own safety, but that of their patients, co-workers, and families.
Further, returning clinicians in UBHC’s Child and Adolescent health units were ordered to return to office work to deliver telemedicine that previously had been (and can still be) done entirely from home, only to find that protocols needed for safety were not in place. Employees were told to bring their own face coverings to work, but with no on-site procedure to confirm their adequacy. Management also hasn’t answered questions about the sufficiency of the office ventilation system. Further, the office was not equipped with hand sanitizer, as was promised, and had only a very limited supply of disinfectant wipes for use by employees.
From these and other reports from the early days of Rutgers’ repopulation effort, it appears that the university administration is content to send workers back into unsafe spaces in order to protect university contracts with outside employers rather than ensure proper health and safety protocols are in place for our members. This is unacceptable and does not bode well for many other Rutgers workers who have not yet—but will soon be—asked to return to on-site work in classrooms, labs, and other on-campus and off-campus workplaces. When confronted by CRU’s Health and Safety Committee members about poor conditions, top administrators told them, “It’s very difficult to do these things” and “It’s just time to get back to normal.” Rutgers continues to prioritize profit over people’s health and well-being.
Members of our coalition of unions who are working on-site should not be forced to become vectors for spread when Rutgers clearly can’t provide for a safe environment and when work can be done from home. Patient-facing unions in our coalition like HPAE and AAUP-BHSNJ or administrative personnel in URA or CWA should not see their members needlessly exposed or exposing others to cases of COVID-19. Our coalition has made a demand to bargain over these and related health and safety issues, as is our contractual right, and a second session will take place this week. In the meantime, remember that each of us has the right to refuse unsafe work based on negotiated contract language.
Finally, the Coalition of Rutgers Unions has emerged as a new and exciting force for worker solidarity and empowerment across campuses and occupations. If you would like to help with organizing and/or communications work within CRU, contact Todd or Becky at [email protected]. The COVID crisis has once more made clear how interconnected and interdependent all our members are. CRU’s dedication to fostering and strengthening these relationships, along with committed participation from member unions, will be key in ensuring a safe and fair Rutgers for everyone to physically return to.
Todd, Becky, and the Coalition of Rutgers Unions
Todd Wolfson, President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT
Rebecca Givan, Vice President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT
Rutgers AAUP-AFT Facebook page: https://facebook.com/RUaaup/
Follow us on Twitter and Instagram: @ruaaup
Find the latest messages to members and union statements here.
Read how Rutgers AAUP-AFT is confronting the crisis here.