March 13, 2020

Epidemic presents myriad issues for higher education

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source:  NYSUT Communications
higher ed cuny
Caption: PSC members affiliated with the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies (SLU) were among the many who went "Red for Ed" on Thursday. Photo via PSC-CUNY.

Ever since it started to become not only possible but probable that college campuses would shut down and move to online learning due to COVID-19, higher education union leaders have been working to ensure that the health and hard-fought rights of union members are protected.

“We will take a calm, measured, common-sense approach as we work with SUNY and the governor’s office to address a very difficult situation,” said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions on SUNY state-operated campuses. “The health of our students and our members is at stake, and we take that very seriously.”

President Barbara Bowen of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY solicited issues from local chapters and the thousands of members who continue to come to work, while rightly worried about the unknown.

“Members have expressed concern not only for themselves but also for vulnerable students and colleagues,” Bowen said. “The union principle that an injury to one is an injury to all is literally true now.”

The PSC, UUP and NYSUT local unions at community colleges all over the state are scrambling to prepare and respond. It gets very complicated very quickly.

Every day we hear of more quarantines, temporary closings and students being recalled from overseas travel. Now, the governor has announced that CUNY and SUNY will go primarily to distance learning formats as of March 19.

NYSUT's coronavirus resources are available at

UUP and PSC weighed in earlier to raise issues with the employers.

PSC sent a message to the CUNY chancellor asserting the union’s right to information about health and safety procedures during the epidemic and its right to negotiate any related changes in employment conditions.

The union addressed things like schedules for cleaning and decontamination; permission to work from home for those most vulnerable; staggered shifts for professional staff to minimize crowd contact in peak commuting times, and more. There’s a lot to think about, and unions were involved in the process as employers began taking major steps.

UUP is discussing a number of employee-based issues regarding SUNY campuses and SUNY’s three public teaching hospitals, including the implications of going online; plans for employees who cannot work online and must work on campus; workload concerns; paid sick time, and intellectual property.

Health and safety issues are mandatory bargaining subjects, so employers have a legal obligation to disclose information and bargain on these issues. You and your union are entitled to know everything about the college or university plans. Consult with your chapter leadership.

“Whether your labor-management relationship is cooperative or not, assessing preparedness for highly infectious disease cases is an important first step,” according to a higher education-specific memo from the American Federation of Teachers.

The AFT provides this rundown, adapted from the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Colleges and Universities Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist, as a helpful resource in setting the agenda for a meeting with employers; it contains basic questions and actions local union leaders should pursue with employers.