The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

'On the front lines': UNC facilities workers consider costs of fall return to campus


A summer facilities worker walks to the edge of Wilson Library while wearing a mask as a precautionary measure against COVID-19 on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Updated July 22, 5:05 p.m.: Campus workers across the UNC System have continued to express concerns about the University’s fall reopening plans and the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. A group of University housekeepers delivered a list of safety demands to UNC Housekeeping Director Herb Richmond at the Cheek-Clarke Building on July 22, along with petition signatures from more than 300 campus workers and students. Some of the demands include implementing daily COVID-19 symptom screening for all staff and students on campus and restoring full administrative leave for all University employees, including temporary workers. 

Dante Strobino, an International Representative of UE local 150, the NC Public Service Workers Union, said in a press advisory that the policy failures of University, state and federal institutions will most significantly impact Black and brown workers, as the pandemic disproportionately impacts their health.

“Despite a planned return of students on August 10th, essential workers on campus continue to report to work with inadequate protective equipment to ensure their safety,” Strobino wrote. “Some departments are providing employees with as few as 1-2 masks per week, and workers report limited access to face shields or gowns. These safety measures have already been proven inadequate after multiple workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in addition to local health officials discovering a coronavirus cluster within the university athletics department.”

The American Association of University Professors and UE Local 150 also held a town hall on July 16 to discuss safety concerns held by UNC System campus workers. This town hall was followed by a “Day of Action” on July 17, during which campus workers carried out a march on UNC’s campus to deliver the same set of demands to South Building.

As part of UNC's plans for a return to campus in the fall, the University is establishing new health and safety guidelines, raising concerns about the increased demands on facilities workers and housekeeping staff who will be responsible for many of the University's new sanitation efforts.

‘On the front lines’

Housekeeping crew leader James Holman said the housekeeping staff was “on the front lines” to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

Stephanie Berrier, communications manager for Facilities Services, said various members of the UNC community have been involved in planning for the fall, including infectious disease and public health experts, local officials, faculty, staff and students.

“Facilities Services has been an active and consistent contributor to this planning process and is providing input to support the development of a strong Roadmap for Fall 2020,” Berrier said via UNC Media Relations.

However, Holman, a member of the Employee Forum and Staff Assembly, said he was not in any meetings where University administration asked for input from facilities workers before the plan to return to campus was released.

“They told us what we’re going to do,” Holman said. 

He said housekeeping staff was asked to sanitize high traffic areas every four hours, which would include wiping down light switches, door handles and other high-touch surfaces. 

According to the Carolina Together website, the University has created community standards that all students, faculty and staff should uphold. This guidance emphasizes mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing, following immunization requirements and maintaining physical distance, among other measures. 

“We are prioritizing the health and safety of our campus community, including all of our employees, in all of our plans for the fall 2020 academic semester,” Becci Menghini, vice chancellor for Human Resources and Equal Opportunity and Compliance, said in a statement from UNC Media Relations. 

Media Relations also said that the University put in place additional steps for the health and safety of facilities workers. In one such step, prior to returning to campus, staff will be required to follow an online training course that includes information on the use of protective equipment, mitigation of COVID-19 transmission and practices to eliminate hazards.

Concerns regarding University protocols

James Stamey is a part-time undergraduate student and a building and environmental services supervisor and zone manager. Stamey, who manages facilities workers and has been a part of the implementation of COVID-19 protective policies, said most housekeeping staff returned June 1. 

Mandatory facilities services employees have been working on campus since reduced on-campus operations began in March, Media Relations said.

Upon the phased on-campus return of University employees, Stamey said protocols of physical distancing and wearing personal protective equipment were put into place to protect facilities workers.

“The staff will be wearing appropriate protective equipment based on roles and responsibilities,” he said.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

According to an FAQ about COVID-19 operations on UNC’s Facilities Services website, face masks will be provided to all staff, and gloves will be provided for those who provide housekeeping services or are in direct contact with faculty, staff or students. Facilities staff will also be required to wash or sanitize their hands for 20 seconds every hour and following certain activities. Equipment shared between staff, such as phones, computers, tools or keys, will be disinfected before, during and after every shift. 

Holman expressed concerns over the limited staff and their ability to properly disinfect campus. 

“For them to do the cleaning the way they want it done in every building, it’s not possible,” Holman said. “We don’t have enough staff to clean up after every class on campus.”

Even though the University has adjusted its schedule to allot 30 minutes between classes, Holman said that he believes the staff would still struggle to properly sanitize classrooms after every class.

“It would be helpful, but that’s not going to be enough time. The responsibility of sanitizing should not only be on the housekeeping department” Holman said. “The professors and the students are going to have help with this. They’re going to have to take responsibility for their own work area or their own study area. Our people can’t do it all.”

Terry Rhodes, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has previously stated that the College plans for students and faculty to clean their own workspaces, and that materials needed for sanitation will be provided for use in each classroom. 

Rhodes also said based on CDC guidelines, Facilities Services has updated cleaning tasks and frequency information for classrooms. Part of the community standards for sanitizing these public spaces involve housekeeping staff disinfecting “high-touch surfaces,” like restrooms and elevator buttons, four times every day, and cleaning all classroom surfaces nightly. 

University hiring and accommodations  

The Office of Human Resources said in a FAQ that COVID-19 Mandatory Employees will no longer receive special compensation, and all employees will receive standard base pay for work conducted on-site or remotely. 

Among these employees are "Mandatory Onsite Primary" workers, which includes permanent or temporary employees whose on-site work has been determined "essential" during the COVID-19 pandemic, the office states, such as for the operation of important infrastructure and facilities. Previously, permanent COVID-19 Mandatory Employees who were required to be at designated UNC worksites received special compensation for work done from April 1 through May 10.

UNC Media Relations said in an email statement that hiring has been limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the University is seeking employees for temporary housekeeping positions.

“The UNC System temporarily suspended non-essential human resources actions, including recruitment activities, except in limited circumstances,” Media Relations said. 

In May, UNC received $4.5 million from the 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Act. Media Relations said relief funding from both the COVID-19 Recovery Act and Federal Emergency Management Agency will support purchases of sanitation supplies and other COVID-19 related expenses to meet increased sanitation needs.  

According to the Carolina Together website, employees who self-identify as being at high risk for COVID-19 are encouraged to use the secure ADA accommodations process that is run by the University’s EOC Office.

“Accommodations could include options such as an altered work schedule, assignment to a remote work environment, or a changed office environment,” the Carolina Together website states.

Staff who have non-medical circumstances and request flexibility about returning to work are encouraged to work with their supervisors to find a solution that addresses the needs of the individual and their respective unit, the website said.

Since UNC announced its plans to return in the fall, University faculty and personnel have frequently discussed protective measures that would be employed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic next semester. 

Darrell Jeter, director of emergency management and planning, emphasized the importance of collaboration within the UNC community during an Employee Forum Meeting held June 10. 

“We’re staying in constant communication and collaboration with our local partners, county public health,” Jeter said in the Employee Forum Meeting. “We’re participating in briefings with them as well as our town and county public safety and public health partners as we recognize it is going to require a collaborative approach.”

@Isabella_Sherk | @chiaraeevans