But with every corridor she cleaned as students filed past into their dorm rooms, Elliott couldn’t help but worry. No one kept their distance. No one was wearing a mask, despite a university mandate.
“If you’re going to implement safety measures for the housekeepers to make the students safe, then you need to do the same for the students to make us safe,” Elliott said. “The university is concerned about the students, but what about the workers?”
With the fall semester beginning soon, support staff at colleges and universities worry about inconsistent safety protocols and maskless students jeopardizing their health. They are the people who clean the classrooms, tend the grounds, sort the mail and keep students fed, but every interaction raises their risks. And sitting the semester out is not an option if they want to earn a living.
At least one custodian at the University of Texas at Austin has died of covid-19, while custodians at the University of Missouri and a housekeeper at the University of Maryland at College Park have contracted the novel coronavirus. Unions representing cleaning and facilities staff are urging colleges to enforce mandatory testing, supply more protective equipment or provide hazard pay to some of the lowest-paid workers in some of the highest-risk positions.
Reopening plans at colleges and universities are in flux as a spike in coronavirus cases is forcing some schools to alter course and keep classes online this fall. But dozens of schools are forging ahead with some form of in-person instruction, including the University of North Carolina system’s 16 campuses. Faculty and staff members there are pleading with administrators to delay this month’s opening and are threatening legal action to that end.
Many are alarmed by what they say is a disregard for the health and safety of workers as the infection rate continues to climb in North Carolina and, in some instances, on campuses. Thirty-seven people in Chapel Hill’s athletics department tested positive for the coronavirus last month, yet the housekeepers that cleaned their living quarters and locker rooms say they were not informed.
Six housekeepers working throughout the Chapel Hill campus have tested positive for the virus, according to the UE 150 Workers Union at UNC, which is asking the university to provide more gloves, face shields and gowns.
Until recently, Elliott said, she was given only one mask a week to wear at work. Her co-worker Jermany Alston, 31, said the union raised money to purchase more protective gear, and she now gets one mask per day. Still, Alston questions why the union had to step in when the university could have done more. Elliott also is disappointed that for all of the risks she and the other housekeepers are taking to do their job, they are not receiving additional compensation.
“I see firsthand the hard work this staff puts in each day. I understand their uneasiness, because being a front-line worker during a pandemic is frightening," said Herb Richmond, director of the housekeeping services department at Chapel Hill. "I’m consistently talking with campus leaders about how Carolina can adapt what we’re doing to address their concerns. We’re committed to making sure our crews continue to have the protective equipment they need so they can do their jobs safely and feel comfortable on campus.”
UNC system spokesman Joshua Ellis said the health and safety of students and faculty and staff members are priorities, but revenue losses are placing pressure on the budget.
“We’ve consulted with the foremost medical professionals and disease researchers … and we’re taking every necessary precaution to ensure our campuses are safe places to teach, study, live and work,” Ellis said.
Universities are assuring workers that they are taking every precaution to keep them safe, but even when staff members say they are provided enough protective gear, they remain wary of one unpredictable factor: students.
Diane Boss, 60, said she and her colleagues in the mailroom at Colgate University are vigilant about staying six feet apart, wearing masks and cleaning their workstations throughout the day. Yet all of those efforts to keep one another safe are undermined when students forget to keep their faces covered and get a little too close, she said.
Boss recalls imploring a student who remained on the Upstate New York campus over the summer to put on his mask as she delivered his package. While she said the young man was apologetic, Boss worries that his classmates may not be as responsive.
“The kids will forget. They’re going to be busy grabbing their stuff and getting their rooms ready, but there has to be consequences. We have to be strict,” Boss said. “I have grandkids; I have an elderly mother; I just don’t want to take a chance."
Colgate spokesman Daniel DeVries said students are being asked to sign a pledge that sets forth expectations of conduct on campus in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state.
“Students who do not follow the community health commitment will lose access to university housing and forfeit their right to be on campus and may also face disciplinary sanctions including suspension or expulsion,” DeVries said. “Working with students and student leaders, we will embed this commitment into our campus culture this semester and hold everyone in the community accountable to this commitment.”
Colgate announced last week that its entire student body of 3,000 will quarantine for two weeks on campus and begin classes online when the fall semester begins Aug. 27.
Classes at the 23 campuses of the California State University system will be held primarily online this fall, but many employees are required to return to campus, and they say they worry about inconsistent safety policies.
At a Cal State board of trustees meeting last month, several staff members urged administrators to create a cohesive repopulation agreement across the system, instead of allowing each campus to roll out its own plan. Their union has been advocating for a singular policy since June, arguing that a patchwork of plans could place workers in danger if some campuses are less vigilant than others.
Cal State spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp said the reopening plans “include rigorous measures to maintain the health and safety of employees and students who are on campus.”
But Don Moreno, one of the custodians who spoke at the trustees meeting, is skeptical that disinfecting, screening and physical distancing measures will be enough to keep an outbreak at bay. Coronavirus cases are increasing in Alameda County, where he has worked for 25 years at Cal State East Bay.
“More people on campus means more danger,” Moreno said. “Why bring more people back when infections are spiking? We need to take this slower.”