On April 2, the University of New Mexico announced that its period of limited operations was extended to April 30 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. With this extension comes new challenges for UNM staff.
One of the biggest changes that came as a result of the extension relates to staff pay.
Since the period of limited operations began, all employees have been sorted into three work tiers. Tier one employees are working physically on campus, tier two work remotely and tier three are on standby and available to report to work if needed.
Regular staff in all tiers will continue to be paid until April 30, per new guidelines sent out by UNM Human Resources. However, no decisions have been made past April 30, according to HR Strategic Support Manager Amber Bailey.
As of the publication of this article, on-call and temporary staff in tiers one and two will be paid for actual hours worked or their typical schedule — whichever is greater — until April 15. After that, they’ll be paid for actual hours worked until at least April 30.
On-call and temporary staff in tier three will be similarly compensated until April 15, after which they won’t be paid unless they’re reassigned to tier one or two.
On-call employees who normally work athletic events or Popejoy Hall shows will not be paid for those canceled events.
UNM works with different departments to figure out how many workers are on campus day-to-day, Bailey said. She said many workers are on rotating shifts to minimize contact with others, and that other workers are only coming to campus for a few hours a week to sign documents, check mail or perform other essential duties.
An event staff member, who prefers to not be named said he received his last check from the University in the middle of March. When the COVID-19 outbreak first hit UNM at around the same time, he was worried about losing his income.
“That would be nice for UNM event staff to still be paid for their missed events. Some of us rely on that check,” he wrote in a public post on Twitter almost a month ago.
Now, he’s trying to get on unemployment, joining the more than 72,000 New Mexicans who’ve applied in the last three weeks, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
He said that he’s kept in touch with his supervisor who has assured him he’ll have a job when athletic events are held again. He hopes this will happen by August, and that UNM will consider giving events staff a pay raise, up from $9 an hour.
“We all work hard and we should be getting paid more for everything we give to the University. A pay raise would show us that we are valued employees,” he said.
For many employees still working on campus, safety is at the top of their concerns.
Eric Bodwell, who has worked as a custodian at UNM for the past eight years, said he has not received any instruction on wearing gloves or masks.
“My greatest worry is that no direction has come from UNM regarding current work conditions. It just seems that we are expendable to UNM management,” Bodwell said.
Custodians are only working one day a week to keep the campus buildings that are still open clean. On the day that Bodwell works, he collects trash and cleans bathrooms.
He works in a group of two or three, which is the most people he sees other than at check-in, where there are 15 to 20 people. Later in the day, other tier 1 employees start coming to campus, at which time Bodwell sees between five and ten people.
Another Facilities Management employee, who remains anonymous out of fear of retaliation from UNM, said he’s had a great deal of difficulty obtaining protective equipment. Facilities Management maintains that personal protective equipment is available to all staff.
“It is so difficult to obtain safety equipment (from UNM) that I’ve resorted to purchasing such items myself,” he said.
He also said the department is seriously understaffed. Zimmerman Library, which boasts the largest library collection in the state, is cleaned by no more than five people, he said.
He is one of many employees pushing for hazard pay.
“If we are essential employees, as it states in the employee handbook, then our pay and our working conditions ought to reflect that,” he said. “Perhaps University administrators might finally be forced to acknowledge just how essential we are if we walked off the job.”
He was quick to point out that public workers’ strikes are prohibited by the state government. The 1978 Public Employee Bargaining Act bans public employees and labor organizations from instigating, supporting or engaging in labor strikes.
As custodians and other essential employees continue to work on campus at personal risk, suggestions for both pay raises and hazard pay have been made by some employees like Transportation Specialist Jesus Chavez.
“One thing this pandemic has highlighted, custodial staff are essential employees and are some of the unsung heroes in the battle to stop the spread of coronavirus as well as other germs. By coming in even one day to work, essential employees put themselves and their families at risk,” Chavez said.
Bodwell and Chavez are both involved in Communications Workers of America (CWA), a labor union that represents a wide range of workers including custodians, bus drivers and electricians. Bodwell is the agency vice president and Chavez is a steward.
At the 2020 state legislative session, CWA representatives advocated for a pay raise for all public workers. The legislature passed a 4% raise.
Every year, CWA negotiates its contract with UNM. This year, representatives will be meeting over Zoom to try to secure that raise for UNM employees covered by the union, Bodwell said.
“It is clear essential staff provide a valuable service to the UNM community. They deserve a living wage,” Chavez said.
With the current pay scale, UNM custodians earn an average of $21,676 a year, according to the Sunshine Portal.
Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bladvs