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'Safe jobs save lives': University faculty and staff demand safer conditions for fall


UNC System workers march across campus towards South Building on Friday, July 17, 2020 to protest the university’s approach to reopening.

The American Association of University Professors and UE Local 150, The North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, held a town hall on Thursday to address the concerns of campus workers at universities across the UNC System and lay out demands for a safer return to campus. 

The town hall was followed by a “Day of Action” on Friday, where campus workers shared their demands through petitions, phone banking, email campaigns and a march on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus.During the march, attendees chanted “Safe jobs save lives” and “Hey Kevin, how many deaths?” 

Attendees at the march delivered a set of demands to South Building via an envelope and gave the administration five days to respond. The demands include providing protective equipment for each shift for workers, making in-person teaching optional, allotting two weeks of additional sick leave and giving union leaders in each department "a seat at the table" to consult on safety measures with University administrators and management. 

During Thursday’s town hall, which was viewed by over 2,000 people, workers and students from several UNC System institutions voiced their concerns about returning to their campuses in the fall. 

UE 150 Vice President Sekia Royall began the town hall by explaining the four themes that guided the worker’s demands. 

Screenshot from the virtually held Town Hall meeting on Thursday, July 16, 2020 to discuss safety during UNC’s reopening.

“Keep us safe, keep our jobs and our incomes safe, end institutional racism and give UE 150 and AAUP a seat at the table to ensure these safety measures are put into place properly,” she said. 

“Keep us safe”

Jermany Alston and Tracy Harter, housekeepers at UNC, spoke about the University's recent announcement that 37 student-athletes, coaches and athletics staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Harter described finding out about the infections on the news before she went into work, only to find that her managers weren’t even aware of it and housekeepers were already cleaning the dorms that housed many of the infected students. 

“What I want to know is who knew it, when did you know it and why didn’t you tell us,” Harter said. “That is the perfect evidence you do not care because we had two housekeepers over there for God only knows how long before they got moved.” 

Alston also expressed her concern that students wouldn’t wear face masks in their residence halls, putting housekeepers at risk. David Brannigan, a groundskeeper at UNC, echoed her concern. 

“There is no hope for compliance,” he said. “... The fact is it’s not going to work, and if it’s not going to work, it’s going to kill workers.” 

According to NC Policy Watch, an email survey of UNC students conducted by the Gillings School of Public Health between June 8 and June 23 reported that 52 percent of undergraduate respondents said they were “extremely likely” to wear a mask while on campus but not in class, with another 26 percent saying they were “somewhat likely.” 

The demands presented at the town hall to administration ask the University to conduct daily COVID-19 symptom screening for all staff and students, as well as develop a comprehensive protocol for quarantining those who test positive. 

Currently, UNC plans to house residential students who have been exposed to the virus but do not have a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in Craige North Residence Hall, while students with confirmed diagnoses will be in Parker Residence Hall. Carolina Together states that the University anticipates that off-campus students will be able to isolate or quarantine in their living accommodations, but “when other options are not available,” on-campus living will be secured. 

Jeff Eaddy, a worker and student at North Carolina Central University, drew attention to the fact that campus workers are some of the lowest-paid employees at UNC System institutions, yet they face a higher risk of contracting the virus than others due to the amount of interaction they have with students. 

“The essential workers, the people that are the most vulnerable, the people that are the least paid, the people that do the most important work for the institution are the people that are being left behind,” he said. 

"A seat at the table"

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Throughout the town hall, speakers drew attention to the fact that Black and Brown campus workers will be most impacted by the virus; data continues to show that Black, Native American or Alaska Native and Latinx people are at a higher risk of contracting and suffering severe illness from COVID-19. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native people are about five times more likely to be hospitalized with coronavirus than non-Hispanic white people, with Hispanic or Latino people being four times as likely to be hospitalized than non-Hispanic white people.

Hanna Wondmagegn, a rising senior at UNC, warned about the possibility of racial bias in enforcing community guidelines such as mask-wearing and social distancing among some members of the UNC community. She also worried that Greek life organizations would not be held to the same standards as the rest of the student body.

“One group and community that usually isn't punished for their actions and have already shown intentions to not follow social distancing rules are fraternities and sororities,” Wondmagegn said. 

At a Carrboro Town Council meeting last week, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin said the University is restricted in how it can control activities sponsored by Greek organizations, because the University does not own that property. 

The student survey conducted by the Gillings School reported that about 30 percent of students said they would still go to parties or other large events when they return to school in the fall. 

Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC and vice president of the UNC Chapel Hill chapter of the AAUP, said that the UNC System administration has ignored the principle of shared governance with faculty that his organization advocates for.  

“We feel frustrated that so many vital decisions have been made in the last couple of months without adequate faculty participation and the participation of all others who are going to be affected by these decisions,” Smith said. 

The University has not yet responded publicly to the workers’ demands. 

Claire Perry contributed reporting.