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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: UNC has poor record of protecting Black and minority workers

As a longtime University employee in Facilities Services, I have zero confidence in the University’s capability or willingness to do what is needed to keep workers safe from COVID-19.  

It seems to me that the response so far has been heavily biased toward white-collar workers with, as far as I’m aware, little input from rank-and-file workers. This could have fatal consequences for certain groups of employees.

Black Americans bear a disproportionate share of fatalities from COVID-19. Housekeeping is a predominantly Black and BAME workforce with the lowest wage earners in the University. This makes these workers particularly vulnerable. As far as I am aware, this disproportionate vulnerability has not been factored in. 

Their plans might be praiseworthy if they were to be fully resourced and their protocols vigorously enforced, but this will not happen. Therefore, these low-paid, marginalized workers will be put at real risk of death.

The Chancellor can give us all the usual guff about the "Carolina family" and the old Tar Heels all pulling together, but their whole approach reflects the institutional and structural racism and implicit bias inherent in the administration.

Whatever policies they might come up with will be undermined by two factors: their previous inability and or unwillingness to enforce other policies currently in place, and an unwillingness of some sections of the facilities workforce to wear masks or observe social distancing.

For many years, we’ve had a no smoking in state vehicles policy. It is clear and unambiguous and never, ever enforced. Facilities employees and many supervisors routinely flout this policy with no consequence.

The no-smoking policy has never been enforced in any manner, thereby allowing hidden corners of the campus to become despoiled by the detritus of the smoking scofflaws.

Other more consequential policies — if and when they are enforced — are enforced in arbitrary and inconsistent ways, depending on the whims of supervisors and HR’s bias in favor of management.

Some examples: Zero tolerance for violence in the workplace, but when two employees draw knives on each other in a fight? Both remain fully employed. Furthermore, mandatory virtual sexual harassment training allowed me to deliberately answer each question incorrectly and I still passed.

Given these past experiences, I fear that the consequences of people being allowed to ignore policies related to COVID-19 will prove deadly for some workers. 

There are elements of the Facilities workforce who are openly contemptuous of any measures related to COVID protection protocols. 

After being coerced back into an unsafe workplace by the imposition of a one-third cut in pay, this could be a matter of life and death.

It should not be allowed to be a vehicle for political or macho posturing. I’ve already heard complaints of crowded break rooms, supervisors and employees working without masks without observing distancing, and one supervisor "wearing" his mask on his arm while working in an academic building. Another employee told me of going to a part of facilities operations and being openly mocked for wearing a mask.

All of this raises serious issues of enforcement, accountability and consequences. 

It should not be acceptable to allow those people’s views about COVID to endanger the lives of fellow workers, particularly Black and other BAME workers. The administration ought to be aware that such behaviors would be in breach of policies that forbid the creation of a "hostile work environment."

The question is: will UNC step up and protect workers from the scofflaws by vigorously enforcing protocols supposedly put in place to protect us?

If not, policies or protocols put in place will be mere tokenism, designed to secure the University’s “revenue stream.” It will be a tokenism that may kill some workers.

David Brannigan

UNC-Chapel Hill groundskeeper

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