Employees Ask For A More Uniform COVID-19 Policy Across Md. Public Universities

    A union representative said Maryland college workers are “really disappointed” by the lack of uniformity and transparency of state public universities’ COVID-19-related safety plans.

    Because of the lack of a standard COVID-19 policy across the University System of Maryland, union workers are left to battle the same fight, such as asking for mandatory testing, on each of USM’s 11 campuses, often leading to different results, Stuart Katzenberg, the director of collective bargaining and growth strategies of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers Council 3, told lawmakers in a Wednesday afternoon briefing.

    “An electrician at Frostburg shouldn’t be treated differently than an electrician at UMES, a coordinator at College Park should not be treated differently than a coordinator at UMBC,” Katzenberg said.

    “If we are all allegedly on the same team, then why aren’t we all playing by the same rules,” said Quiana Tilghman, a member of AFSCME.

    Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) also highlighted that some USM campuses were not doing nearly as much collaboration with their unions as others were.

    AFSCME Council 3 represents more than 90% of all public higher education workers in Maryland. Over 1,000 members worked on USM campuses throughout the summer, but were not given testing until August, Katzenberg said.

    “Instead of creating policy, they [USM] create guidance, principles and concepts to avoid bargaining with AFSCME,” he continued.

    The University System of Maryland mandated coronavirus tests for all students and staff who were planning to come back to campus at the end of July. There was a second round of testing after Labor Day weekend on each of USM’s campuses.

    USM Chancellor Jay Perman said that taking care of staff has been a well-established principle within the system.

    “We established the principle very early on…that we were going to try to protect our employees, all of our employees, as much as possible…especially our lower paid staff,” Perman said. “That’s the way everyone has behaved.”

    Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) asked whether USM institutions were giving hazard pay to compensate staff who were working in rooms designated for quarantine, or “what I think we would all consider some of the higher risk jobs right now.”

    There is no policy that requires all USM institutions to offer hazard pay to its staff, but it could be something that could be negotiated, said Carolyn Skolnik, associate vice chancellor of USM Human Resources.

    Employees at University of Maryland College Park have the option for a reassignment if they are uncomfortable working in rooms where students may be positive, Skolnik said.

    University of Maryland Eastern Shore has negotiated to offer hazard pay to staff who are working in rooms for positive-tested students in isolation. Frostburg State has contracted with an outside hotel, so their staff are not coming in contact with anyone who has been isolated for quarantine, university leaders told lawmakers.

    Maryland public universities are also facing financial challenges as a result of the pandemic, which will lead layoffs, temporary salary reductions, furloughs, and hiring freezes, university leaders said.

    Losses in tuition, housing and dining fees, as well as cost increases for testing, personal protective equipment and additional training for staff, has caused an estimated loss of half a billion dollars across USM institutions.

    “We will do everything we can to reduce cost in other areas before impacting current employees,” said Ellen Herbst, USM Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance.

    Morgan State University is currently facing a $28.8 million budget gap. “It is hurting big time because it will certainly involve salary reductions, furloughs, and we are freezing all positions,” said David Wilson, president of MSU. However, the $15 million from the CARES Act saved Morgan State from having to issue massive layoffs, he said.

    St. Mary’s College of Maryland anticipates a loss of $4-5 million in revenue this semester alone. Up to 25% salary reductions, furloughs, hiring freezes and travel restrictions will be necessary to balance the budget and alleviate its “very precarious financial position,” said Tuajuanda Jordan, president of the college.

    USM has also frozen hiring, eliminated vacant positions and implemented temporary salary reductions. Those who are earning the most will be taking the largest percentage reductions, Herbst said. “We are sparing employees at the lowest pay rates from any action.”

    “Ninety percent of the University employee workforce and over 99.8% of employees represented by AFSCME will see no reduction in their salary at all,” said Darryll Pines, president of University of Maryland College Park.

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    Editor’s Note: This story was updated to attribute information about working conditions at University of Maryland College Park to Carolyn Skolnik, associate vice chancellor of USM Human Resources.

    Elizabeth Shwe
    Shwe covered California state politics during her internship at The Sacramento Bee. She is a 2020 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in political science. At Princeton she was a producer for WPRB 103.3 FM News & Culture section, the station’s only long form podcast-type program. Shwe also wrote for The Daily Princetonian, and tutored with the Petey Greene Program, which offers free tutoring to incarcerated people. Shwe is a Report for America corps member.