Maryland’s public universities have for months strategized about ways to keep students and faculty safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. But staff members who provide essential services, from housekeeping to IT, at many of those universities say their schools’ leaders have treated their safety and wellbeing as afterthoughts.
Members of the labor union that represents the staff shared their concerns with a group of state lawmakers on Wednesday.
At Frostburg State University, clear plastic shower curtains hang around staff desks in financial aid and admissions offices to prevent staff and students from passing COVID-19 between them.
The shower curtains are one of several protective measures that were intended to be temporary but were never replaced with something permanent, said Blair Knouse, the school’s chemistry lab manager and a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.
In another example, AFSCME members were told to drive students who tested positive for COVID-19 to a Quality Inn off campus, where they were to quarantine. To transport the students, the university retrofitted a school van with plastic sheeting and duct tape, Knouse told members of the state House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation committees.
When the union raised concerns about that plan, Knouse said management’s solution was to bring in non-union workers for the task.
Part of the problem is that the union was left out of conversations about the school’s reopening plans, he said.
“Frostburg formed 14 different subcommittees to plan for the reopening of campus,” Knouse said. “Labor was not involved until the plan had been finalized and they had begun implementation.”
He said that lack of communication persists now, a month after students returned to campus for the fall semester.
“We were just given a furlough plan on Monday after months of circulating it on campus, but management had been refusing to discuss it,” he said. “In its current form, all of our employees face temporary salary reductions.”
The staff representatives who spoke at Wednesday’s briefing said the union has been left out of COVID-19 planning discussions at several state universities.
Stuart Katzenberg, director of collective bargaining for AFSCME in Maryland, rattled off a list of problems at different public universities.
He called negotiations at St. Mary’s College of Maryland “completely hostile.”
“They resisted any calls for mandatory testing and said they would only test unless the governor made them,” he said.
At Bowie State University, the administration repurposed an old dorm to quarantine COVID-positive students without telling the union, he said. Initially, the only indication was a note taped to the building’s door warning staff not to enter without “full” personal protective equipment, including a hair cover, gown, N95 mask, face shield and gloves. The note was later replaced with one identifying the building as a “university quarantine site.”
Katzenberg said AFSCME members refused to work in the building because they were not given proper PPE or training.
He called on the University System of Maryland, the parent system overseeing 12 institutions, to develop consistent health and safety policies across its campuses. For now, every campus makes its own operational decisions.
“We've seen a very subjective, micro approach to the health and safety within departments and divisions across campuses, but that isn't what we need here,” Katzenberg said. “We need a policy that protects everyone that makes sense.”
Several schools’ leaders spoke before the union members gave their accounts. Lawmakers gave them a chance to respond to the union’s complaints afterward, but none of the university officials spoke up.
Earlier in the meeting, University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay Perman said his administration has been “intensely engaged” with the union.
“We established the principle very early on ... that we were going to try to protect our employees, all of our employees, as much as possible, especially our staff, especially our lower-paid staff,” Perman said. “That was established as a principle, and that's the way everyone has behaved.”
Perman said the university system has set baselines for each institution to follow. However, the schools within the system vary in size, location and types of students, necessitating different policies at each.
“Our presidents, working hand-in-hand with their local health departments and with the system's own scientists and public health experts, need to be able to make decisions that make sense for their own campus and their own community,” he said.