Five days a week, Relford Matthews reports to dormitories at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to paint, fill holes in the walls and install Plexiglass dividers meant to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Lots of the time, Matthews works by himself. So, for the moment, the 64-year-old maintenance worker feels safe at his job.
But he knows a storm is coming. The students.
UMES, like numerous other Maryland colleges and universities, is hoping to welcome students back to campus this fall — even on a limited basis — after an abrupt end to the spring semester as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the frontline workers toiling to make it happen, housekeepers and maintenance workers among them, say they harbor fears for the fall. Fears that students won’t follow protocol in the dorms, and walk about mask-less. Fears that the workers would be the ones most likely to contract deadly cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Matthews, who’s represented by a union for state workers, said he mostly worries for his wife, who has diabetes.
“One of the things that really scares me more than anything is the lack of communication between us and the people that we’re working for,” he said on Thursday, adding that he hasn’t heard about plans to test students for COVID-19 or perform temperature checks when they return to campus.
On Monday, the university began temperature screening employees and visitors who entered campus, a spokesman said. The university has also designated specific dorms for students that test positive for COVID-19 once they return in the fall, in an effort to isolate them.
Unlike professors, some of whom can teach courses online this fall, the university’s frontline workers have little choice. Their jobs cannot be completed via Zoom or over the phone, and they’ve become all the more important as universities brace for a uniquely taxing semester.
The union representing housekeepers and facilities workers at the University of Maryland, College Park filed a complaint with the State Higher Education Labor Relations Board July 10 urging the school to enforce a mandatory coronavirus testing policy, supply more protective equipment and provide more coronavirus-specific training.
The union’s complaint alleged that the university refused to bargain with leaders from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union dating back to May, when the union sought further protections for its members as students were returning to campus to move their items out of school dormitories.
Housekeepers expressed concern that there are no temperature checks or other screenings required for staff working in the dorms. Instead, the workers reporting to campus are told to fill out an online form that asks them to report any symptoms they are experiencing and take their own temperatures.
“When we go into our supervisor’s office, all they ask you is, ‘Are you OK to work today?’” said Rhonda Leneski, a 50-year-old housekeeper represented by the union. Leneski said she’s concerned that neither temperature checks nor coronavirus screening will be required for students moving into the dorms next month, either.
Meanwhile, one housekeeper at Maryland has already tested positive for COVID-19, union leaders say, and the school had to halt football practices after several athletes tested positive. The school has hosted voluntary coronavirus testing on campus, but has no plans to make testing compulsory when students return in the fall.
Todd Holden, president of the AFSCME chapter representing the University of Maryland’s workers, said housekeepers didn’t hear about their coworker’s positive case until days after officials were notified about it. He expressed frustration that the University System of Maryland, the governing body for the College Park and Eastern Shore campuses, and numerous others, hasn’t set a uniform policy requiring schools to complete certain screening and testing procedures for the return to campus.
“A number of years ago, USM, for instance, banned smoking on all of the campuses,” Holden said. “In this particular environment they most definitely should have the power and authority to make sure that people are protected from global pandemic.”
The system said in a statement: “The chancellor and University System of Maryland institution presidents are working collaboratively to explore best practices regarding testing and disease surveillance and control, and each institution is developing its own plan that must address a number of elements to meet the health and safety needs of its students and employees.”
Meanwhile, workers at the College Park campus have also been forced to contend with an additional challenge. In six campus buildings where they’re hard at work, the air conditioning has been shut off for summer maintenance. Several of the university’s dorm buildings don’t have air conditioning at all.
The summer maintenance is meant to “reduce moisture,” according to a statement from the university’s Division of Student Affairs. The decision comes after mold wreaked havoc in campus buildings in 2018, when hundreds of students were forced to pack up and move into hotels.
Housekeepers told The Baltimore Sun that they had to forego wearing masks that became sopping wet with sweat in the un-air conditioned buildings.
“They don’t care about housekeepers,” said Shernette Lyons, a 51-year-old housekeeper working in a dorm that does not have AC. She is also represented by AFSCME.
Lyons said fellow housekeepers reported vomiting on the job, and others reported breathing issues. Lyons, who has high blood pressure, opted to take extra time off to avoid the heat in Chestertown Hall, where there is no air conditioning.
The university announced that housekeepers would be offered alternate working hours to avoid the hottest parts of the day, but Lyons said accepting nighttime work would upend her schedule, and is therefore undesirable. The university has also announced that it’s encouraging workers to take more frequent breaks, and it’s supplying fans, cold water, and cool lounge areas for their work stations. In some buildings, the AC may be turned back on during working hours, the university said in a statement.
The university said in a statement that President Darryll Pines recently met with administrators and union representatives to discuss employee safety, and that the university will “revisit testing temporary and portable air conditioning units in [its] residence halls.”
Holden called the union’s discussion with Pines “notable.” He said that similar discussions didn’t take place with the university’s previous administration. But, he noted that the meeting didn’t take place until after sustained advocacy from the union on social media.
Jim Kidwell, a maintenance worker at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has COPD —which at times makes it difficult to breathe — said he is considering retiring in the coming weeks, before students arrive on campus.
These days, Kidwell, 68, is using his own N-95 masks to work. He has two left, one of which is rapidly degrading from overuse.
“I told my boss, ‘When I run out of N-95 masks, that’s my last day,” Kidwell said.
On Monday, UMBC offered its first round of testing on campus. Kidwell was able to secure a test, but he was frustrated by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the testing, especially since he’s been working on campus for months.
“They should have done it back in freaking March,” Kidwell said.
Lenn Caron, UMBC’s Associate Vice President for Facilities Management, said his team of maintenance workers was operating with a “skeleton crew” initially, and has begun to scale up the number of workers on campus in order to complete preventative maintenance and fixes that require no students be on campus.
His department has a large stock of personal protective equipment, including masks, he said, and workers can request more as needed, but they do not have N-95 respirators, since the Centers for Disease Control only recommend such masks for health care workers.
“I understand the concerns of our employees, and the faculty even, on campus with students because there’s concern the students just won’t follow the rules,” Caron said. “But we’re trying to work out strategies to incentivize them to follow the rules.”
Caron said signage is likely to be posted on campus urging students to wear masks and maintain social distancing, and students will likely be asked to sign a pledge to that effect.
Kidwell, a plumbing specialist, doesn’t want to leave his coworkers behind by retiring, especially since the university is in the midst of a hiring freeze and he knows he will not be replaced. But he can’t shake the feeling that remaining when students return could put his life at risk.
These days, he’s thinking a lot about his time working in a shipyard. He said that time that exposed him to asbestos and caused his breathing issues.
“I’ve always felt like I’m living on borrowed time, because I have asbestosis in both lungs,” he said. “So there is no way on God’s green Earth that I am going to put myself in harm’s way.”
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