November/December 2021 Issue
October 25, 2021

Higher ed: Safety concerns predate COVID–19

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
james davis
Caption: James Davis, new president of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, says health and safety has been a priority. Photo by Dave Sanders.

Even while striving to cope with the implications of COVID–19, the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY has been pressing to identify health and safety problems needing remediation or buildings needing to come off line.

The PSC has trained more than 200 union health and safety watchdogs to participate in walkthroughs of campus worksites and identify threats to health and safety.

“Health and safety has been our primary fight” over the university’s 20 campuses, said new PSC President James Davis. Many of the buildings have suffered from years of deferred maintenance, he reported to the NYSUT Higher Education Policy Council recently.

“There’s a ton of federal funding,” Davis said, but “we’ve not seen enough of [it] being invested in the institution.”

The pandemic has had its effect, as well. PSC lost 2,000 contingent faculty and also many professional staff since the COVID-19 shutdown began, he said.

On SUNY four-year campuses, United University Professions ran an aggressive vaccination campaign, said UUP President Fred Kowal. The Department of Health requires vaccinations for all health care employees at SUNY hospitals.

The union did workshops and outreach to members, and many people got their shots as a result. Very few have not been vaccinated.

“We got the message across: Vaccinations should be mandated and through our work on our campuses, the impact was lower than we thought it would be,” he said.

Kowal also said the union is close to securing retroactive overtime pay for health care professional members who have been so overburdened by the massive pandemic response.

At the beginning of the shutdown, members of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Technical Staff at NYU were part of a hiring freeze and the local lost 125 members, reported UCATS President Stephen Rechner.

Almost everyone remaining was ordered to work from home.

But 10 percent of members were required to work on campus fulltime as essential workers during the height of the shutdown.

Interestingly, 10 years ago, the union had negotiated contract language that said, in a shutdown, “essentials” would be paid time and a half for the first three days. Well, the administration failed to honor that agreement. The union had to fight for it.

“And, we won!” Rechner said. The UCATS members who had to risk working on campus while everyone else was home are getting their time and a half.

Rechner said NYU had originally planned to require in-person work for all by this past August, but the union gained flexibility in remote work after demonstrating that it was effective.

Most of the 125 positions lost are expected to be filled soon, he said.

Community colleges report reduced enrollment this fall in the range of 10 to 15 percent. The four-year schools have seen a slightly lower reduction.

A big factor in enrollment might be the pending federal aid package that could include two years of free tuition at colleges that primarily offer associate’s degrees.

NYSUT Higher Ed Policy Council Chair Roberta Elins, president of the United College Employees at FIT, likened it to “reverse Excelsior,” which is the state’s “last-dollar” scholarship that pays for public higher education at four-year schools, under rather strict conditions.

On a positive note, Elins added that the annual NYSUT Community College Leadership Conference will return to an in-person format in November after a COVID-related break in 2020.