With the University of New Mexico currently reporting 42 cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff, some employees working on campus are requesting better working conditions and hazard pay.
Dante Gonzales, a representative of the labor union Communications Workers of America, explained some of the fears and concerns UNM employees have, many of which have been lingering since the coronavirus pandemic began over six months ago.
When asked about job security and the potential for layoffs, Gonzales said the rumor mill is abuzz.
“(There is) lots of fear around that, especially with temporary workers, because there are definitely rumors about layoffs and furloughs,” Gonzales said. “But to my knowledge, there have been no answers regarding that question.”
Health concerns are also high amongst staff on campus, Gonzales said.
“The fear stems from the people on campus who don’t believe in the risks, don’t wash their hands, don’t social distance,” Gonzales said. “They are just the super spreaders. Even though there is a lot less density here at the University, all it takes is one person to go around and just shed all of those virus particles.”
The University has provided disposable masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to staff, but back in April, a custodian who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation told the Daily Lobo, “It is so difficult to obtain safety equipment (from UNM) that I’ve resorted to purchasing such items myself.”
Additionally, Gonzales said the online work safety training that essential employees received from UNM could’ve gone more in depth.
“It was real simple, real quick. ‘Wear your mask, stay six feet apart from people, wash your hands, don’t touch your face.’ All real simple, simple stuff like that,” Gonzales said.
The greatest concern Gonzales expressed was that essential employees are not receiving hazard pay.
“For the most part, everyone is still quarantined at home. Well, what happens when it’s people who don’t work from home, who have to go out and be around people to make a living?” Gonzales said. “What do you do then? I really think there should be some type of compensation for those who do not get to stay home.”
In response to the question of hazard pay, the University’s human resources department said while the University “deeply appreciates the work performed by essential employees,” it’s been “faced with significant budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty but has remained vigilant in its commitment to minimize layoffs and to continue paying regular employees when possible.”
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Meanwhile, employees of the Student Government Accounting Office (SGAO), which processes all funds allocated by the undergraduate and graduate student governments, say that the office space they’re working in is less than ideal.
Jacob Rutgers, a student employee at SGAO who has worked there for almost two years, said the space is too small to uphold social distancing measures.
“Prior to everything that happened, it was already really cramped…We frequently had six to 10 people in here pre-COVID,” Rutgers said. “With the regulations that UNM put in place, we’re only allowed to have four people in our little section, and it kind of feels like a cage in a way.”
Joanna Garcia, who has worked for SGAO for nearly five years and is the supervisor of student employees in the office, emailed Cheryl Wallace, the director of the Student Union Building, in July after hearing that Events Planning was moving to a different office.
Garcia asked if SGAO could relocate to the former Events Planning office space in order to better abide by social distancing guidelines. Her email to Wallace went unanswered.
“My staff doesn’t have offices: They have little cubicles, and if someone came to them for help they would have to sit knee-to-knee with their accountant,” Garcia said. “There is no space … I have complained for years that we would like to have more space. It’s almost insulting. We’re always in the office.”
Wallace said that before they were allowed to reopen, they had to submit a plan to University leadership. As part of the reopening plan, PVC pipe dividers and plexiglass were installed in SGAO in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I am assuming that since (the reopening plan) was approved by UNM leadership that it’s sufficient for the health guidelines,” Wallace said.
Rutgers, on the other hand, said the installation of the dividers “feels like a bandaid to a much larger problem” that made training new employees difficult.
“This is changing our very way of operating, and the solutions just seem in a way barbaric because the real solution would be to get a much larger space so we can operate safely and maintain that six feet of distance,” Rutgers said.
When asked about SGAO’s request to move to a different office, Wallace said she couldn’t comment because it isn’t under her direct supervision and redirected the Daily Lobo to Ryan Lindquist, director of the Student Activities Center.
“I have not received any concerns about the setup of the space from any employees or visitors to the Student Activities Center or the Student Government Accounting Office,” Lindquist said. “If I do get any concerns, we would work with the COVID reopening administration team to reassess the space and make any changes they would recommend.”
The World Health Organization has made recommendations regarding proper ventilation in offices and schools, which is crucial in preventing the spread of the virus. According to the organization’s website, there should be fresh, clean air in all workplaces, achieved through increased natural or mechanical ventilation.
Lindquist said he doesn’t have any information about the ventilation of spaces in the SUB.
Referring to the PVC piping, Garcia said, “I call it a COVID incubator, because that’s what it is — just trapping the air.”
Rutgers said he’s unsure whether the safety measures the University has implemented are actually capable of preventing essential workers from contracting the virus.
“I’m just wondering how much is theater and how much is effective means of being safe,” Rutgers said.
Jasmine Casillas is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jaycasillas
Madeline Pukite is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @madelinepukite