UMass residential staff claim COVID-19 precautions inadequate

  • The UMass campus Tuesday, June 30.

Staff Writer
Published: 7/24/2020 8:42:59 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Union leaders representing residential assistants and peer mentors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are calling for the university to take greater measures to protect residential life staff when students return to campus in the fall.

“We want plans that put lives above profit and revenue, and we don’t feel that this plan does that,” said James Cordero, a co-chair of the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union of UAW 2322.

Residential life staff members say the university’s current plans for how resident assistants (RAs) and peer mentors will enforce social distancing are unclear and disregard the health and safety of workers. 

Under the university’s fall reopening plan, which was released in late June, all undergraduate students who had secured housing were invited to return to campus, though most classes will be held remotely. Earlier this week, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced that around 7,000 students are expected to return to campus, or 50%-60% of the usual on-campus student population.

All students returning to campus or the surrounding area are required to sign the UMass Agreement, which outlines public health and social distancing measures that students must follow, such as restricting guests, mandatory COVID-19 testing and wearing a face covering outside of one’s room.

But leaders of the resident assistants union, along with some community members, say the university’s reopening plan prioritizes revenue over the health and safety of the UMass campus and surrounding communities. Among residential life staff, RAs in particular will face increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 infection, they say. RAs have frequent interaction with small groups of students inside buildings, Cordero said, where members have concerns about inadequate ventilation.

In response to the plan, the union has asked for remote work opportunities for residential life staff and hazard pay. UMass has “flat out refused to bargain over these things with us,” said union co-chair Natalie Luftman. 

Campus spokeswoman Mary Dettloff told the Gazette the university “will not comment on specific bargaining proposals while active negotiations are underway.”

In the statement to the Gazette, Dettloff said, “The university’s labor relations staff has been meeting regularly and will continue to meet with the RA and Peer Mentor union twice a week to discuss their concerns related to the fall 2020 semester.

“As with all employees who are working on campus this fall, the university is committed to creating a safe workplace for all, especially in these times of a public health crisis,” she said.

Staff have questioned whether they are meant to play an educational or enforcement role in regulating social distancing and find the possibility of enforcement particularly troubling, Cordero said, noting that some staff members are uncomfortable that they could be tasked with calling campus police on students of color. So far, union members say the university has not provided clarification on what their responsibilities will involve.

“We were told there is no policy on how this will be enforced yet,” Cordero said. “To us, that’s just not acceptable, because for UMass to even announce a reopening without a plan in place to enforce the social distancing protocols tells us that this plan does not consider health and safety.”

The residential staffers union is asking the university to allow RAs and peer mentors more involvement in finalizing the policy. If staff responses are not considered, Cordero said, the university risks alienating those who are needed to facilitate an on-campus experience for students.

“UMass needs RAs and peer mentors to agree to this plan so that we can actually be the ones to reopen the dorms. We are the critical student staff. And the steps that UMass has taken … really are just not adequate.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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