CUNY employees demand answers, threaten strike before August reopening

Unclear as to what's next for their Aug. 2, 2021, return-to-work date, Hostos College employees held a demonstration outside the college on Grand Concourse Wednesday, demanding transparency on the school's reopening plans.
Photos Adrian Childress

A Hostos College employee advocacy group is threatening the possibility of a labor strike, if CUNY or Hostos administrators don’t address a set of demands that include ensuring a safe return to campus amidst growing COVID-19 numbers.

An estimated 7,000 CUNY employees are set to return to campuses across the city next month, as most colleges and universities prepare for an in-person reopening after shutting its doors in March 2020 due to COVID-19.

But faculty members and union leaders said that a lack of communication from CUNY administrators about reopening plans has left them in the dark about their safety as the city’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

The group is also proposing a delayed return to campus if union officials deem the campus facilities unsafe.

“We know that the answer to this problem is fighting back up to and including striking,” said Alex Wolf, a member of the Hostos Action Committee, an advocacy group of CUNY employees. “In the past, it’s been about tuition, contracts, financial aid, and now it’s about the health and safety of our students and faculty … and the way to fight to protect those things is to shut the university down until CUNY does what’s right.”

In addition to Hostos, the Bronx has two other schools including Bronx Community College and Lehman College that are a part of the city’s 25-campus public university system known as CUNY.

“The vast majority of CUNY employees haven’t set foot on campus since last March and have little information about the ventilation of their workspaces, or the cleanliness of spaces that have been unoccupied for over a year,” said representatives from The Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union representing 30,000 CUNY employees that has continually insisted on “no return without a safe return.”

Attempts to reach CUNY officials for comment were unsuccessful.

In May, CUNY officials detailed several elements that August reopening plans needed to include such as unvaccinated students and staff being required to wear masks, mandatory quarantine periods for those contracting the virus, and surveillance testing for unvaccinated individuals, who will be required to submit a test every 7 days to attend in-person classes.

Hostos’ two-phase reopening plan which was revised on July 21 echoes similar language to the CUNY guidelines. In August, all CUNY schools will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for entry into in-person classes and campus facilities.

“Since the pandemic hit, Hostos has been working fast to comply with safety protocols and adapt to all the changes everyone experienced,” said Hostos spokesperson Soldanela Lopez. “The fall is no different.”

School officials are supposed to complete at least one pre-occupancy walkthrough of any facility slated to reopen the week of Aug. 2.

“The August 2 reopening date was announced by the Chancellor in May, but the date isn’t the problem,” said Craig Bernadini, associate professor at Hostos. “The problem is how late CUNY has been about taking action to ensure faculty, staff and student safety. In effect, ‘they’ created the problem with the date.”

Members of the Hostos Action Committee said that Hostos administrators agreed to a walkthrough of its facilities to ensure proper ventilation in school buildings and address safety procedures with faculty and union leaders on July 21-22. Those walkthroughs never happened, as Hostos officials told members of the committee, it needed to be rescheduled due to a staffing issue.

“And absolutely, yes, adjunct faculty have lost hours, health insurance, and in some cases employment at Hostos, although we don’t yet have figures for how deeply Hostos’s adjunct faculty were impacted last spring,” said Craig Bernardini, associate professor at Hostos.

Hostos Action Committee members believe that a late-July walkthrough won’t be enough time for changes to ventilation systems or feedback on safety procedures to be implemented before the Aug. 2 return-to-work date or when classes resume on Aug. 25.

“Our reopening plan and the CUNY website say that students must be vaccinated to attend classes in person, but if you look at CUNY’s FAQs, the mandate isn’t in effect until the FDA generally [fully] approves at least one vaccine,” Bernadini said.  “It’s like they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth, and students are caught in the middle.” All three vaccines currently being administered in the U.S. have only been granted emergency use authorization by the FDA.

Just 40.5% of the Bronx’s 16-25 demographic has received one dose of the vaccine, according to the state’s vaccination data.

“There’s no specific date for that authorization and it takes a full month to be fully vaccinated,” said Wolf. “I don’t believe the mandate will be enforced before school begins. And the testing protocol of seven days is too long to prevent a potential outbreak on campus.”

Demonstrators are also calling on college and university officials to waive financial holds that are preventing students from registering for fall classes and to rehire adjunct professors that were fired during the pandemic.

Nearly 3,000 adjunct professors were laid off during the pandemic, losing their salaries and health insurance, with only 1,000 having been rehired for the fall semester, according to the union representing CUNY employees.

CUNY was the beneficiary of $841 million in federal relief funds in response to the pandemic. Some CUNYs also received sizeable private donations, such as Mackenzie Scott’s — ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — donations of $15 million to Hostos and $30 million to Lehman.

Protestors are calling on CUNY colleges to use federal relief money to cover all student holds and fees that impact students, like Hostos senior Britnay Bell, and prevents them from registering for classes until the fees are paid.

“It’s ridiculous,” Bell said. “We had no means to support ourselves financially because of a pandemic, and I haven’t been able to reach anyone in financial services to talk about the holds. It’s proof that CUNYs operate as an exploitative business, and not a place for education.”

Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bxtimes and Facebook @bxtimes. 

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