A newly formed coalition of University of Wisconsin-Madison worker unions released a statement Wednesday demanding COVID-19 policies that include fully online coursework, payment continuity and hourly student wages.
The University Labor Council’s statement was signed by representatives of the Building and Construction Trades Council, Teaching Assistants Association and local chapters of the United Faculty and Academic Staff and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The group had begun meetings in the spring for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, but UFAS president Alyssa Franze said the pandemic “reemphasized the importance of working together” across unions.
In the statement, the council said the pandemic is an opportunity for UW-Madison to reinvest in the state and respond to “assaults” on higher education from legislators and UW System leadership.
“The University works because we do: we disinfect dorm rooms, feed and educate our community’s young adults, ensure that the university is fiscally responsible, and build safe and efficient infrastructure,” the statement said. “It is that service to our community and state that drives us now … Our community’s health is more important than tuition money and dorm dollars.”
Franze added that administrators have denied or ignored multiple requests to meet with UFAS and TAA, which do not have legal union bargaining rights under Act 10. In response to representatives, the Chancellor’s office said that administrators are meeting regularly with designated shared governance groups including the University Committee, Academic Staff Executive Committee and University Staff Central Committee, according to an email obtained by the Cap Times.
UW-Madison has estimated a loss of $150 million through the summer. Costs for protective measures including testing and hiring contact tracers are expected to cost an additional $35 million to $40 million for the 2020-2021 academic year.
Vice chancellor for finance and administration Laurent Heller said in an email that the university has responded to feedback through frequent meetings and collaboration and will continue to “do all we can” to protect employees, citing canceled budget allocations, enrollment efforts and freezes on travel, hiring and raises.
“We appreciate the contributions of all of our employees to help us weather the pandemic. It has been a very difficult time for the university and our whole community,” Heller said. “Through this crisis, we have done everything we can to shield our employees from its impact … We know that the financial uncertainty is a significant source of concern for our community.”
The university cannot guarantee that there will not be further cuts affecting jobs and wages, Heller said. Though unpaid employee furloughs are slated to continue through October, workshare plans mostly ended this summer, and the university has not announced any additional paid leave policies since they were first implemented in the spring.
The paid leave program was “crucial to keeping a large segment of our workforce on the payroll during an unprecedented period of disruption to campus activities,” Heller said.
The unions demand that the university extend unemployment and payment continuity for all workers during the pandemic, reinstate the $15 per hour promised wage for hourly workers and extend it to student workers. Due to a freeze on hiring and raises, UW-Madison paused a progressive move toward a $15 wage, which did not include student employees.
"UW-Madison continues to pay a living wage based on city of Madison standards and will seek to resume this effort in the future when the financial situation stabilizes," Heller said.
The statement also demands that the university move all courses online until Dane County has reported zero new cases of COVID-19 for 14 consecutive days. Since the university’s initial Smart Restart announcement, the county has continued to see new cases daily, though numbers have dropped since peaking in late June and early July. Nearly 40% of confirmed cases have been within the 20 to 29-year-old age group and 10% within the 10 to 19-year-old age group.
Classes will commence Sept. 2, with 37% of classes in-person, 8% a hybrid of in-person and online, and 55% online. The semester will transition to fully online learning after Thanksgiving break through finals week.
Individual schools and departments are responsible for deciding how courses will be offered, which makes it difficult to track employees’ preferences. However, UFAS members have expressed concerns about cases in which employees have not had their requests accommodated, as well as the burden of sharing confidential medical information in the process.
“If the expectation is that classes over 50 people will be taught in-person and some percentage of classes should be in-person, UW is essentially forcing instructional staff to plead for an exception,” said TAA co-president Alejandra Canales in an email. “No one should have to be explaining why they are extremely concerned about the risk of illness and death.”
Heller responded that the process is being managed by disability representatives, trained employees who regularly work with confidential health information as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations process.
“The process we’re using for accommodations related to the pandemic is similar in many respects to that well understood and defined process with strong protections for workers’ privacy,” he said.
The unions’ statement, which cites “inconsistent and inequitable” policies, echoes previous concerns from faculty, staff and students, many of whom said decentralization has exacerbated confusion and poor communication. In July, faculty organization PROFS and the elected University Committee — which also serves as PROFS’ board of directors — said in a statement that information “is simply not making its way from the working groups down to the units and rank-and-file faculty.”
In a survey conducted by the Association of American University Professors in June, 75% of respondents — including faculty, academic staff and graduate workers — said they had been asked about their teaching preferences for the fall. Most preferred online instruction over hybrid or in-person teaching, and most also had not yet heard back about these accommodations.
On Monday, professors in the University Committee cited similar concerns from within their departments, as faculty and teaching staff worry about returning to campus, especially given the surge in COVID-19 cases over the summer. The committee discussed staff and graduate workers’ lack of voice compared to faculty and the possibility of a university statement explicitly not requiring anyone to teach on campus.
When asked about employees who might be afraid to teach in person without particular health or safety concerns, chief human resources officer Mark Walters said at the meeting that it is a “complex issue” that requires employees to discuss flexibility with their supervisors or department chairs. Workplace flexibility policies are listed on the university’s Smart Restart website.
TAA co-president Canales said faculty and people with more stable employment can use their voices to speak up, from expressing discomfort teaching in person at a department meeting or writing to administrators on behalf of other employees.
“I think that there is an urgent call for faculty, particularly tenured faculty, to stand in solidarity with people who are in extremely vulnerable positions right now,” UFAS' Franze added. “The virus doesn’t care about what level of job security you have or the tenure status that you have. The virus doesn’t care about artificial boundaries."
"Those things affect all of us.”
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