The University of Oregon administration recently made its decision about campus reopening for Winter term, and has opted for primarily remote instruction, similar to fall term. We appreciate that UO has made this announcement with sufficient time for faculty, staff and students to plan for the winter term. However, despite largely remote instruction in both fall and winter, we have concerns about employee health and safety.
In their health and safety operational plan, the university argues that “Safety is the responsibility of all UO employees and students” (Section 15.1). We agree that in a pandemic, safety is the responsibility of employees and students, however, this is a shared responsibility with the University of Oregon and especially the Board of Trustees. Further, we as employees cannot do our due diligence if the university doesn’t put us in a position where we are empowered to take that responsibility. To illustrate this, we would like to use this time to provide specific examples of individual responsibilities expected of us that cannot be sufficiently addressed without changes in the policies made by the university administration.
First, the current policy does not provide guidance to employees who test positive, beyond suggesting they should tell their supervisor. Without a robust policy for contact tracing for employees, it is impossible for us to know if we have been exposed. If we don’t know when we’ve been exposed then we don’t know to quarantine, putting countless others at risk. Furthermore, there are limited resources to support employees in isolation or quarantine and those which are available are not communicated in a manner that is easily accessible to employees.
Next, the current face covering policy states that it is “prohibited for any individual to be denied or restricted access or participation based on not wearing a face covering, if the individual states that they are aware of, and that they meet an exemption to, this regulation”. How can we protect our safety and the safety of those around us if the University of Oregon does not allow us to restrict access to those not wearing face coverings? Additionally, requiring that individuals state they meet an exemption brings up concerns around ethics and privacy as they relate to accessibility and disabilities. This policy essentially requires us to demand personal medical information from our students and colleagues and makes everyone less safe.
In regard to building operations, the health and safety operational plan states that 16% of buildings on campus have insufficient air flow (Section 3.11) but suggests that individuals can open windows. As winter approaches, how will employees continue to work in these cold and damp buildings? Further, are we to understand that folks who work in the 16% of buildings on campus that do not have sufficient air handling systems are more disposable than others? What makes 16% an acceptable threshold?
Off-campus, the University of Oregon’s expectation is that employees will shoulder the full responsibility of providing a remote working environment. The transition from on-campus to remote work has meant changes in infrastructure, as many of us can no longer access a reliable or workable office space. This is particularly true for GEs who share desks or work in large shared offices. It is no longer possible for all people assigned to an office to use this space during working hours. The ramifications of this can be material, as we see with GEs who now have to choose to pay an Internet bill instead of utilities, or immaterial, as we see with the blending of personal and professional life and the expectation that we now be available far beyond our typically understood working hours.
As a final example, the University of Oregon has refused to provide universal funding extensions for graduate students. This means that many GEs must choose between either working in unsafe conditions to meet graduation requirements, find a way to pay astronomical academic costs ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, or forfeit our degrees. Presently, some lab GEs have resorted to working overnight in order to meet graduation requirements while avoiding unmasked people in buildings. As the pandemic goes on and much of our research continues to be untenable in these circumstances, more and more GEs will be put into these physically, financially, and academically precarious situations because of the university’s lack of action.
In all of these cases, the University of Oregon can take steps to make it possible for individuals to take responsibility, not just for their own safety, but for the safety of those around them. The University of Oregon recently expanded its testing program to employees, a step in the right direction. However, other universities have already gone far beyond this first step and can serve as a model for the University of Oregon to follow. The University of Oregon MUST take these and other steps.
The COVID Response Committee has been attempting to have good faith engagements with the UO administration through the Employee Safety Reopening Committee, but these have clearly not been sufficient to address our concerns. The COVID Response Committee has also been communicating with GTFF members about their COVID-related concerns and has provided feedback to the Board of Trustees on the health and safety operational plan, but these too have gone unaddressed. As the pandemic goes on, this committee will continue to bolster the voices of our members and address their unique needs at this time. This includes calling for more robust and explicit mechanisms of institutional accountability for our working and learning conditions amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic.
GTFF COVID Response Committee