Campus workers, faculty and graduate students gathered in front of the South Building on Thursday morning to advocate for worker safety and job security in the wake of the University’s decision to close campus.
The rally was hosted by the NC Public Service Workers Union UE150 and The Workers of UNC Coalition.
Donald Santacaterina, a history Ph.D student and member of the UE Local 150 Union, said this rally was the first in a continuing series of collective actions that will take place on Thursdays. He said community and union members were rallying on behalf of facilities services, housekeepers and all campus and graduate workers at UNC.
“We’re out here asking that no workers are furloughed during this crisis,” Santacaterina said. “That all workers get paid administrative leave while they’re out of work, for their very small paychecks already. And we ask that we get a seat at the table and start having direct discussion with UNC leading organizers, leading administrators, so that we can discuss how to best move through this pandemic together.”
In a statement from UNC Media Relations, Vice Chancellor of Human Resources and Equal Opportunity and Compliance Becci Menghini said UNC aims to address questions and concerns from employees.
"There is a lot of information out there to parse through and everyone faces a different situation, so I invite Carolina employees to get in touch directly with my office so we can take an individual approach to answering questions and finding answers together," Menghini said in the statement.
Throughout the summer, UE 150 voiced opposition to UNC’s decision to bring students back to campus in the fall. Dave Attewell, union member and political science Ph.D student, said the union contacted administrators multiple times and asked them to include the voices of workers in UNC's reopening plan.
And he said it’s frustrating to see the semester unfold as it has.
“And I think what we’re really focused on right now is realizing that we’re not out of the woods, even for this semester, there’s still going to be students on campus,” Attewell said. “And that means there are still going to be campus workers that are cleaning dorm spaces and working on campus, and they’re still at risk.”
In an email sent to faculty and staff on Thursday, Menghini said UNC expects most employees to work as scheduled, either on campus or remotely, unless otherwise instructed by a manager or supervisor.
At the rally, housekeeper Tracy Harter spoke about the need for adequate worker protection, job security and greater transparency from the University.
“We started out as having one face mask a week, and now, because of getting in front of the media, we finally have something they said they couldn’t give us — we get one face mask a day,” Harter said.
In an email, UNC Media Relations said housekeepers and other front line workers are provided with masks and gloves, and there is no limit to the amount of community protective equipment they can receive.
UNC Media Relations said in an email that if a member of the Carolina community tests positive for COVID-19, “We will follow standard contact tracing protocols to identify and communicate directly with those who had close contact with the individual.”
Contact tracing for employees will be conducted by their county health department.
Harter also spoke about the necessity of administrative leave. Campus workers are eligible for a maximum of two weeks of emergency paid sick leave. This leave cannot be taken intermittently. Harter said this is problematic because if campus workers get tested, they are also told to stay at home while waiting on their results. Additionally, if workers aren’t being paid for their time off, she worries somebody who tests positive with mild or no symptoms will still show up to work.
“How can you stand here and talk about Carolina pride when you do something like that to the ones who are your backbone?” she asked at the rally. “Who clean your office, who empty your trash cans, clean your toilets? You want to leave us at home with nothing. That’s not right. That’s not pride, and that’s definitely not the Carolina way.”
UNC Media Relations said in an email that the Office of State Human Resources, which is run through the UNC System Office, determines what leave is available to employees and UNC-Chapel Hill has little to no discretion. The email said that, as authorized by the UNC System Office, the Office of Human Resources at Carolina is in the process of creating a leave bank to provide additional leave for individuals who have exhausted the other available leave.
Harter said University workers anticipated the semester would unfold as it did, and they knew the protections they needed to do their jobs. She said the University needs to be more transparent with workers and listen to them when making decisions about their jobs.
Attewell said that though the administration is responsible for how this semester has unfolded, it also reflects a broken political and governance structure for the University as a whole.
“The administration could have done a lot of things better, but we also think it’s not surprising that when you head the UNC System with a bunch of CEOs that don’t have an understanding of education, that don’t have actual experience in the classroom or experience with workers in Universities, they don’t take worker safety seriously,” Attewell said.
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