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Heel Talk episode 13: Facilities workers' concerns about fall reopening plan

Graphic of Heel Talk podcast

The 13th episode of Heel Talk went live Monday morning. 

As the fall semester rapidly approaches, many housekeeping and facilities workers have questioned the practicality of implementing safety guidelines for on-campus operations. For example, part of the community standards expected of housekeeping staff involve disinfecting “high-touch surfaces,” like restrooms and elevator buttons, four times a day, which some say is not possible. 

This episode is the second part of a two-part series where we highlight University employee reactions to the upcoming fall semester plan. 

The reporting was done by Chiara Evans and Isabella Sherk. This episode was co-edited and co-produced by Evely Forte and Meredith Radford. 

For more information on today’s episode, click here.

The transcript of Monday’s episode is available below: 

Chiara Evans: And he said that he worried that in order to do the cleaning the way that the University wanted it to be done, that they wouldn’t have enough staff to complete that. And he said that there just isn’t enough staff to clean up after every single class on campus.

Evely Forte: I’m Evely Forte and this is Heel Talk.

As the fall semester rapidly approaches, many housekeeping and facilities workers have questioned the practicality of implementing safety guidelines for on-campus operations. For example, part of the community standards expected of housekeeping staff involve disinfecting “high-touch surfaces,” like restrooms and elevator buttons, four times a day, which some say is just not possible. 

I spoke to DTH reporters Chiara Evans and Isabella Sherk to get a better sense as to how University facilities workers and housekeeping staff feel about the upcoming semester and if they are making any demands of UNC administration to ensure that they are kept safe. 

Hey. Thanks so much for joining me today.

CE: Thank you for having us.

IS: Yes, thanks. Happy to be here.

EF: So, my understanding of your reporting is that many are raising concerns about increased demands the University is placing on its workers and staff members following the implementation of the University’s new health and safety guidelines. Could you two start us off by explaining what those new University sanitation efforts involve?

CE: So, just on a base level, the University created community standards, and those are just on the Carolina Together site. And those are just things like they expect students, faculty and staff to wear masks, wash their hands a lot, maintain physical distance and then also just, like, following immunization requirements. 

But, they’ve also added measures that are for facilities workers and housekeeping staff, and they’re going to be responsible for a lot of those new sanitation efforts. And so, that’ll include things like sanitizing high traffic areas every four hours, wiping down light switches, door handles, anything that, like, we put our hands on a lot.

So, we actually ended up reaching out to Media Relations and they, sort of, explained to us that their main goal was just to prioritize the health and safety of the campus community, and that includes all of us, the employees and everything in their plans for reopening.

IS: Right, and the dean of College of Arts and Sciences, Terry Rhodes, also reemphasized cleaning measures and said that Facilities Services updated cleaning tasks and frequency that those will occur. So, high-touch surfaces like restrooms or elevator buttons will be cleaned four times every day, and all classroom surfaces will be cleaned nightly. 

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To protect those employees, UNC’s Facilities Services website said that face masks will be provided to all staff, and gloves will be provided to those in housekeeping that, like, will be in direct contact with faculty, staff or students. 

Also, there’s the 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Act. UNC got $4.5 million, the highest you could get. And those funds, along with funds from FEMA will support purchases of sanitation supplies and other COVID-19 related expenses, though we don’t know how much money is being allocated to facilities services. 

Media Relations said that “examples of facilities support include the purchase of enhanced sanitation supplies and equipment, and hiring additional temporary employees to meet increased sanitation needs.” 

They are also being asked to wash or sanitize their hands every hour and following certain activities and are disinfecting equipment shared between staff such as phones, computers or tools.

EF: Do either of you have a sense of whether the University is helping to support these workers while they implement these new protocols?

IS: Previously, permanent COVID-19 mandatory employees, who were required to be at designated UNC worksites, received special compensation for work done from April 1st through May 10th. But now they’ve stopped that.

CE: We asked Media Relations about monetary accommodations and we were directed to the Human Resources FAQ page, which anyone can find. And, what we found was that there is a Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and that, sort of, provided for two different leave options, essentially. 

So, one of them is Emergency Paid Sick Leave and that basically provides up to two weeks for all active employees to leave. But, if they exhaust all of that time granted by that act, then they need to use other paid leave time or go on leave without pay.  

And, they also have the Expanded Family Medical Leave, which is also under the Families First Coronavirus Act, and this provides up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave for employees who have to care for their child if their school or their daycare is closed for instance, because of COVID-19, obviously.

And for that, the first two weeks are unpaid, actually. And then, for the next 10 weeks, they receive up to two-thirds of the pay, which results to about $200 daily. And then, the University said that they will supplement that, to leave the rate at two-thirds of their pay. And then the employee is responsible themselves, to basically make up that one-third through their own.

IS: And, the Carolina Together website also talks about accommodations at work, for people who may be concerned about their own medical needs. It reads “accommodations could include options such as an altered work schedule, assignment to a remote work environment, or a changed office environment.” 

EF: So, from your understanding, were UNC facilities workers and housekeeping staff consulted throughout this process of creating these new sanitation efforts when they were created? 

CE: So, we spoke to Stephanie Berrier, and she’s the communications manager for Facilities Services. She told us that Facilities Services have been active contributors to the planning process, but she didn’t specify to what extent that really happened. 

But, we spoke to James Holman, and he’s a facilities employee, a member of the Employee Forum and also the Staff Assembly. And, he said that he was not a part of any meetings where the University asked for input from facilities workers before they released their plan to reopen. According to him, he said that they were basically just told what they were going to do. And, he said that the concerns he had were things that he went to the University to express. So, he was not asked, he basically gave them to them. 

EF: And, do you have a sense as to how some facilities workers are feeling about the upcoming semester?

IS: I think that there are some concerns about what the University is asking of the facilities staff. We talked to two members of the facilities staff, and the member I talked to was James Stamey. He is a part-time undergraduate student and building and environmental services supervisor and zone manager in housekeeping. 

So, he said housekeeping staff was brought back on June 1st, upon which safety measures such as physical distancing and provided PPE were taken. And, he said he felt confident in the University’s ability to protect the facilities staff, and he himself felt safe going back to work. 

James Stamey: You know, it’s new for all of us and we’re just trying to do the best we can under the circumstances. But, I feel confident that the University is prepared to take on the challenge, and has taken on the challenge, and will be better prepared when the fall, or when students return to campus. 

CE: So, I talked to James Holman, and he said that he worried that in order to do the cleaning the way the University wanted it to be done, that they wouldn’t have enough staff to complete that. And he said that there just isn’t enough staff to clean up after every single class on campus. 

And, the University recently changed the scheduling, so they allowed 30 minutes between classes. But, even with that extra measure taken, Holman said that he thinks the staff would still struggle to fully sanitize in the classrooms. 

IS: Right, and hiring has been limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the University is seeking employees for temporary housekeeping positions. So, it seems that they are working to, I guess, supplement any staff they may have lost because of the pandemic.

EF: And, are there any other campus community members that are expected to contribute to the implementation of this new University sanitation plan?

CE: Yes, so, Terry Rhodes, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that the college plans for students and faculty to clean their own workspaces. And, this was actually a concern that Holman brought up when we spoke. He said that it was really important that students and faculty wipe down desks and chairs each time after using them. And, Rhodes has said that there will be materials that are needed for sanitation for use in every classroom. 

EF: Well, thank you both so much, again, for your time today and for sharing the insights that you’ve gained from your reporting.

IS: Thanks for having us.

CE: Thank you.

EF: Now here are other DTH stories from this past week that you should be familiar with.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced on June 30th that the University is entering into a $1.5 million settlement over Clery Act violations. This follows a 2019 finding by the U.S. Department of Education that the University had violated the Clery Act, in its failure to report and compile crime statistics for years. The University’s settlement with the department also includes agreeing to participate in a post-review monitoring program to further address violations.  

The Undergraduate Senate’s Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity had its inaugural meeting via Zoom on June 30th. During the meeting, the commission discussed plans to address representation and support for minority groups on campus moving forward this upcoming academic year. 

And finally, the University has yet to release 11 sexual assault records following the N.C. Supreme Court ruling in May that UNC would be required to release disciplinary records for individuals found responsible of committing rape, sexual assault or other acts of sexual misconduct. The Daily Tar Heel’s Maydha Devarajan reported on this delay, finding that the University expected to release 11 responsive records by June 30.

This week’s episode of Heel Talk was co-edited and co-produced by Meredith Radford and myself. That’s it for this week’s episode of Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte. I’ll see you next week.

So, if you enjoyed today’s episode, please consider subscribing, rating and reviewing the episode, and sharing it with someone that you think would enjoy it too. I’ll see you next time. 

Episode transcribed by Meredith Radford.

DTH stories mentioned in this episode: 

'On the front lines': UNC facilities workers consider costs of fall return to campus,’ by Chiara Evans and Isabella Sherk

UNC enters into $1.5 million settlement over Clery Act violations, chancellor announces,’ by Maydha Devarajan 

Here's what you need to know about the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity,’ by Sara Raja

University delays releasing sexual assault records despite N.C. Supreme Court ruling,’ by Maydha Devarajan 

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