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.
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.”