The unfair labor practices complaint was filed last week with the State Higher Education Labor Relations Board, which enforces labor contracts at public institutions. The complaint alleges the university refuses to negotiate health and safety protocols as workers return to campus in the midst of the pandemic.
Officials with the board have received the complaint and requested a response from U-Md., said Denise Galante, special assistant to the executive director who oversees the state’s labor relations boards. The Higher Education Labor Relations Board will review the university’s response and then issue a decision.
Natifia Mullings, a U-Md. spokeswoman, said the university does not comment on pending complaints or litigation proceedings.
The complaint comes as the number of infections in the region has begun to tick up, following weeks of sharp declines and a slow reopening of businesses, restaurants and houses of worship. D.C., Maryland and Virginia reported 2,049 new coronavirus infections on Sunday, the highest single-day increase since late May. The seven-day average in cases for the region has been trending upward for nearly two weeks. The region also saw 11 more deaths, nine of them in Maryland.
Keith Wrightson, a health and safety specialist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he’s particularly concerned about what workers say is a lack of training surrounding cleaning procedures. The union’s College Park chapter represents about 3,400 employees, including housekeepers, bus drivers, administrative assistants and other campus staff.
“They’re being asked to do things that they would not normally do, and employers don’t understand their obligation to ensure worker safety and health. And that’s problematic for a lot of people,” Wrightson said. He added that housekeepers are using new cleaning products to kill the virus. “A lot of workers are being issued whatever and being told to go and clean.”
As part of a broader effort to expand testing, the school offered voluntary coronavirus tests to the campus community last week. But those tests came nearly a month after a housekeeper contracted the virus.
Gliny Gonzalez, who has been a housekeeper for 14 years, said she believes she was exposed to the virus at work, where she spends much of her time in close quarters with other cleaning staff.
“We would have hoped people would have been able to get tested sooner,” said Marc Seiden, an organizer for the union’s chapter at College Park. “There really needs to be universal mandatory testing and screening.”
Housekeepers and other cleaning crews are responsible for sanitizing surfaces, mopping floors and dusting furniture to keep the rest of the community safe. But they said they fear for their own well-being. Workers’ health concerns were magnified earlier this month when the university shared that nine Maryland athletes and staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“We’re not really safe,” said Rhonda Leneski, a 50-year-old housekeeper. She said the university gives staff members one surgical mask to last through the day.
“Then you sweat in the mask — you don’t want to wear it,” she said. “The university did provide us with the cloth masks, but how can you wear that for eight hours in the heat?”
Housekeepers have also complained about working in dangerous heat, as they prepare residence halls for about 8,900 students being offered on-campus housing this fall. On a recent morning inside Centreville Hall, a housekeeper recorded a temperature of 93 degrees.
The air conditioning had been shut off to control moisture, said Katie Lawson, another university spokeswoman.
Mullings said that large fans had been installed and that workers were encouraged to take frequent breaks. But in response to workers’ complaints about persistent heat, the university disclosed plans to offer temporary work reassignments to cooler buildings and rework schedules so housekeepers can avoid working through the hottest parts of the day.
In buildings where staff members are working, air conditioning will run during the day and be turned off at night, Lawson said in an email.
Housekeepers say working in extremely hot dorm rooms has taken a toll on their health. Leneski said she missed four days of work after her throat started to hurt while cleaning. Then came a throbbing headache.
“I was worried I had [covid-19],” Leneski said. “It was, like, almost 100 degrees” in her building, she said.
Seiden, the union organizer, said other workers got sick too.
“People were throwing up, people had headaches,” he said. “Not just while they were in the heat, but for hours after they got home.”
Seiden added that conditions have improved since Darryll J. Pines, the university’s president, got involved. On Tuesday, after a meeting with union leaders, Pines tweeted: “We have worked to identify cooling solutions in every residence hall where our employees work this summer. Progress!”
Leneski said that she was moved to cooler buildings last week but that the ordeal has soured her view of the university.
“It makes me feel like they don’t care about us. They just care about this job [that has] to be done,” she said. “Everybody else on campus feels the same way.”