Students are back on Campus, yet some Staff Remain Concerned

Across the United States, colleges have reversed their reopening plans or sent students home after experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak in the first weeks of the semester. Despite concerns expressed by faculty and staff –– including a petition to revise the college’s reopening plans –– Bates managed to successfully bring students back to campus. So far, the in-person fall semester is going according to plan. 

Between Aug. 25-27, nearly 1,800 students returned to campus. As of Sept. 8, 1,163 employee test results have been received, with zero positive results. There is currently one active student case and one recovered on campus following more than 7,500 tests.

Although the future seems promising, outbreaks can happen quickly and some faculty and staff remain concerned for their personal safety, the safety of the community, and their job security. 

The Bates Student spoke with four Dining Services staff members, one Facility Services worker, and a Campus Security staff member, all of whom wished to remain anonymous. Rick Mcqueeney, who works for the Bobcat Express, and Alex Kunzweiler, a member of the Grounds & Maintenance Crew for the last three years, both agreed to express their opinions on the record. Additional concerns raised in this article were shared across faculty and staff listservs. 

As I watch the powers that be completely change how the students can eat, stay safe, and keep us safe, [I] feel like someone [is] pounding a round peg into a square hole.”

— Dining staff member

SAFETY

Kunzweiler shared that he is concerned about the health of his older coworkers because of how often they come into contact with students. He added that “morale was low before [the pandemic], and for me it continues to drop. The work is really taxing, it’s hard on the body. Lots of physical labor, lots of lifting.” 

Many staff have expressed fear about returning to their jobs and a campus full of students. On Aug. 23, before students returned to campus, one maintenance worker sent an email to the faculty and staff listservs, writing: “The trash truck has 60-100 stops a day, five times a week. It’s going to be a lot of doorknobs to touch. Hallways to pass people…Failures at other institutions, the way I’ve been treated in the past, a second wave of Covid on the way. I’m intimidated by what comes next…” 

Dining and Custodial staff members have also stated that they worry about potentially bringing the virus home and infecting their older relatives if an outbreak were to occur. 

As of Tuesday, no staff or faculty members have tested positive for COVID-19 since reopening campus.

In an email on Tuesday, Christine Schwartz, Assistant Vice President for Dining, wrote to students detailing new changes to Commons to improve the welfare of staff. The communication stressed to students the importance of physical distancing during dining and stated that dining will now be centralized to Commons. Gray Cage will be removed as a dinner option and a third hot food line will be added in Commons to allow dining staff the “necessary time to rest, relax, and refresh.”

Commons staff members serve hot food to students in take out containers behind a plexiglass wall, handing students their meal through a small slot. 

The college has also instituted an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan, specifically designated to protect employees and students, which includes “protocols for distancing, wearing face coverings, hygiene, and meetings, self-monitoring, employees with symptoms or diagnoses, exposure to symptomatic and diagnosed individuals, and returning to campus, among other steps.” 

Additionally, the Harward Center hosts The Caring Commons, a web page “designed to share resources amongst Bates faculty and staff during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.” The Caring Commons includes resources for food, health and mental healthcare, employment and labor services, and housing resources; among other things. 

Finally, a comprehensive testing policy, where faculty and staff may be tested twice a week, is available to all campus employees. The Bates healthcare plan is comprehensive, waiving “member cost-sharing for FDA authorized COVID-19 tests and healthcare provider visits  including telemedicine visits, urgent care visits, and emergency visits that result in an order for or administration of the test.”

COMPENSATION

Despite reduced need for hourly staff after students were sent home in March, Bates kept its staff on payroll. 

“I give [the administration] the utmost respect for [that],” one dining staff member shared. Yet, they also worry that Bates’ decision was partially financially motivated.

Many of the staff members interviewed for this article worry that they will be out of a job if Bates has to send students home before the end of the semester. “We are all frustrated and afraid of being laid-off or let go,” one dining staff member said.

In a statement written in response to the Bates Solidarity petition in August, President Spencer stated that “to date, we have not implemented furloughs or layoffs, and we very much hope to continue on this path.”

Staff will not be receiving hazard pay to cover risks associated with working during the pandemic. However, they can apply for paid pandemic sick leave for up to 15 days, or the equivalent of 120 hours, which will be prorated for part-time staff. 

This policy went into effect on July 1, and states that “if Pandemic Paid Sick Leave Bank is exhausted and the employee remains absent, then regular paid time off will be used for the remainder of the 30‐day elimination period.” 

Short-term disability will be applicable for absences exceeding 30 days. Non-benefit eligible positions ‒ per diem or temporary ‒ do not receive any paid leave, according to Human Resources. In response to the increased financial burdens due to the pandemic, there will be no raises or contributions made to employee retirement funds for fiscal year 2021.

Kunzweiler highlighted a change that was made to the college’s overtime policy earlier this year, and the implications this has during a pandemic. He said that staff used to be able to take a sick or vacation day to stay home with their kids. However, the current policy states: “Sick leave benefits are intended to provide income protection in the event of illness or injury, and may not be used for any other absence.”

Since the pandemic started, Kunzweiler said that the administration has cited the college’s financial status as the reason that they won’t be increasing staff pay or making contributions to their 401k accounts, but believes it’s more a matter of what the college would rather spend money on. 

“We see them spending money on other things, like the science building, the Adirondack chairs we put out, and the indoor tables for the Gray Cage that we set up and then took down because of the changes made to dining,” he said. 

Kunzweiler shared that many staff, including himself, are living paycheck to paycheck. “I care a lot about the people I work with on [the grounds crew], and also the dining and custodial staff. I want everyone to be able to take care of their basic needs,” he said. 

Kunzweiler came in making $13.50 per hour. His current hourly wage, $14.91, will remain the same for the foreseeable future. “It’s hard to stay motivated, knowing that it’ll be a while until there’s something to work toward,”he said.

One dining staff member shared that part-time dining staff make just $12.00 per hour –– Maine’s minimum wage –– and many hourly staff make less than $15.00 per hour. Kunzweiler shared that for many staff, the 401k benefits are a key reason people apply for a job at Bates. 

According to Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics Alyssa Maraj Grahame, “Pandemic or no pandemic, I think that it’s disappointing that Bates doesn’t pay its lowest paid workers a living wage.” Maraj Grahame believes that staff should have the biggest say in what constitutes a “living wage.” 

Kunzweiler said one of the changes he’d like to see happen at Bates is for all staff to earn a living wage.

STUDENT ADHERENCE TO BATES AND CDC GUIDELINES

On campus or off, [student’s] decisions will impact whether or not we can fulfill our primary mission of keeping students safe, as well as whether we can keep campus open or closed, and even whether we keep all of us at Bates employed.”

— Jason Fein

A recurring concern amongst staff, students, and faculty alike is that students are not adhering to the college’s guidelines. 

“I’ve definitely seen students without a mask or in close proximity,” Kunzweiler said on Sept. 2. “We have heard there’s been parties going on over the weekend and we’ve seen a lot of beer cans and red cups.” 

Kunzweiler thinks students are trying to do the best they can, and wants them to have their college experience on campus but thinks “there could be safer ways to do that.” 

One dining staff member acknowledged how challenging it is to prevent students from socializing. “I’m not going to put all of this on the students because I was young once too. If I was paying $70,000 to go to college, my attitude would’ve been: ‘I’m going do whatever I want.’” 

Administrators have sent numerous emails to students and employees in the last two weeks warning against behaviors which violate Bates’ public health guidelines. 

On Aug. 24 Director of Athletics Jason Fein sent an email to the Athletic Department about a rumor regarding off-campus gatherings. The following day, Senior Associate Dean of Students Carl Steidel sent an email to students residing off-campus about numerous complaints from community members.

Additionally, in an email to students on Aug. 30, Vice President for Campus Life and Dean of Students Joshua McIntosh sent an email to students which acknowledged large gatherings of students on Mt. David the previous weekend and reminded students of the public health standards.

At the end of the first day of classes, Kunzweiler said that it seemed like the majority of students were wearing masks. He worries more about the weekends when “things seem a little bit more relaxed and there aren’t enough staff to help go around and remind people.” With Campus Safety staff working 12-hour shifts, Kunzweiler pointed out that “they’re probably feeling pretty burned out.” 

In an email sent to faculty and staff before reopening, Grahame wrote: “the kind of elitism that proposes that the lives and well being of some are worth more than others and that some people deserve more control over their risk of exposure to COVID-19 than others, is unequivocally on the wrong side of history.”

The college has, on multiple occasions, made it clear that students who violate the social policies on campus will be faced with strict disciplinary consequences, including suspension. 

In a statement to The Bates Student, Mary Pols, Bates Media Relation Specialist, confirmed that the college has sent students home due to non-compliance with health and safety policies.

COMMUNICATION

One dining staff member shared that there’s been a lack of clear communication from supervisors. “When you ask questions, you’re not getting answers,” they said. They said that Commons has held one meeting for staff to discuss the campus testing procedure before students returned to campus, but that three other scheduled meetings were cancelled without explanation. 

Faculty and staff have also shared concerns about communication with administration. “I just feel like there’s a lack of empathy from the uppers. No one’s asking us how we feel about it. I don’t even know what my job entails,” a Dining staff member told the Bates Student. 

In responding to the Bates Solidarity petitionwhich demanded “a safer reopening plan” President Spencer released a statement on August 10 in which she wrote: “In addition to receiving comments via the web, the college has hosted fifteen major town halls, open forum meetings, and information sessions to engage with and hear from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and families, in addition to dozens of smaller meetings focused on specific topics.”

Information pertaining to staff, including a detailed Q&A on topics including testing and health concerns, can be found online from Human Resources. 

Yet, according to Kunzweiler, “there’s a lot of ‘we’ll get back to you’ but not a lot of follow up” from supervisors. He also shared that staff are frustrated with the lack of transparency — for example regarding which buildings are housing students in quarantine — which he believes affects the safety of custodial and maintenance staff. 

CONCERNS NOT SHARED BY ALL STAFF

It is important to recognize that these feelings are not universal amongst all staff. Many staff are happy to have students back on campus. Franky, a member of the custodial staff known for his friendly fist bumps, said he was excited to welcome students back to Bates. “I’m going to feel so happy to see the faces on this campus again,” he told The Bates Student before students returned to campus.

On Aug. 22, Rick McQueeney, who works as a Bobcat Express driver, wrote to the faculty and staff email listservs: I am not going to speak for the whole huddled masses, just the small group that I work with…There was not a single one of us that did not want the college to reopen. We are all coming back and are happy that Bates is allowing us to be gainfully employed and helping in our small way prepare the next group of great citizens of this world…. We understand the risks involved and are aware of the possible repercussions.” 

McQueeney also expressed gratitude for the many precautions Bates is taking to stop the spread of the virus, including free testing, social distancing, sanitation, renting of hotel space, planned quarantine space, repercussions for violations of the safety protocol, and more.

FACULTY EXPRESS THEIR SOLIDARITY

Grahame, who studies financial crises, raised the following questions in her email: “Was any alternative plan that would have prioritized COVID-related safety and security for staff over finances ever seriously considered? Were hazard pay and long-term Covid/disability protections for frontline staff ever discussed, and what were the outcomes of those discussions?” 

In a response to Grahame’s email sent out on Wednesday, August 19 Visiting Professor in Environmental Studies Francis Eanes questioned the college’s decision process and the language used by the administration in communicating the plans for the fall. 

“How can we be ‘all in this together’ when some of us (who get paid the most by far) get to work remotely while those who get paid the least are the ones likeliest to face the virus in person while cleaning dorm bathrooms & classrooms, making & serving meals, doing scanning/photocopying for faculty, assisting students in the library, and doing all of the grounds/maintenance work that keeps campus running?” Eanes wrote. 

Eanes was also critical of the idea of “shared sacrifice” in the context of staff who are unable to work remotely and who face “the prospect of spending 10-20% of their annual income to cover the deductible on their health plans in the event of sickness.” 

According to one faculty member who chose to remain anonymous, the degree of communication across faculty and staff listservs is something new. “Faculty and staff don’t usually speak to each other in this way,” they said. 

If students are mindful of their actions and do everything they can to minimize the risk that custodial, dining, and facility services staff are exposed to in their daily duties, staff may find that their concerns are alleviated. However, compensation of staff is likely to remain a source of dissatisfaction. 

Bates continues to forge ahead into unchartered waters. What role will students play in supporting staff, right now and in the future?