8.5.20 COVID Bargaining Update
On July 30, we met again with representatives from the administration to bargain over the impacts of the resumption of in-person work across OSU’s campuses, extension offices, and research stations. And, once again, a primary topic of discussion was our proposed Memorandum of Understanding that would allow each faculty member to make their own decision about returning to in-person work or remaining remote. And, once again, the administration reiterated their opposition to giving faculty this level of control. While they say they would like to accommodate everyone’s needs and preferences, the administration contends that it may be necessary, in some circumstances, to require reluctant faculty members to return to campus. At this point they assert that they have not had to resort to coercion. But in making that assertion, they have failed to take into account the power imbalances that may deter some faculty members, particularly those on fixed-term appointments, from requesting remote work for fear of losing their jobs. The truly odious suggestion was made that some faculty, if given the absolute right to decide for themselves, may abuse the “privilege” of working remotely. Since the end of Winter term, faculty have stepped up and expended many additional hours and considerable effort in service to the teaching and research missions of OSU. We have done our part and deserve the respect to determine our own role in any resumption plan details.
Dan Larson, Vice Provost for Student Affairs and OSU Coronavirus Response Coordinator, joined us to provide information on the administration’s reopening plans. That information can be found here: covid.oregonstate.edu. A key question of great importance to faculty is this: Who decides and how will decisions be made about the resumption of in-person work? The initial response to our query was confusing and inadequate. The Continuity Management Team was mentioned but is not actually empowered to make decisions; Benton County was mentioned but is not empowered to make decisions about the university. When pressed, it became clear that it will ultimately be left to the President and the Provost, in consultation with public health agencies, to decide our fate. We believe that faculty, both collectively and individually, deserve a stronger voice in making decisions that impact their risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Many of our questions to the administration focused on the adequacy of testing, daily self-assessments, tracing, isolation measures, and enforcement of the face covering and physical distancing policies. The administration acknowledges the following:
1) the virus is, at this point, uncontained;
2) though TRACE OSU will provide some sample testing, the university and community lack the resources to broadly and regularly test individual students, faculty, and staff for infection;
3) prevalence testing through TRACE OSU will be be of limited use in timely identification of active infections;
4) the rate of false negatives for the viral tests is not well understood and may be very high;
5) antibody testing is still inaccurate;
6) daily temperature and other self-screenings may not be particularly effective;
7) the face covering policy cannot be adequately enforced since anyone can claim an exemption and not be challenged (although faculty should attempt to enforce safety measures in their classes).
Their honest admission of the risks and the uncertainty at this point in time for the university to truly keep people safe, while laudable at one level, is also deeply disturbing and did nothing to allay our fears.
The administration has been briefed by the Benton County Health Department regarding the effects of OSU’s resumption of in-person work on even a limited scale. It is clear that a return to on-campus instruction, particularly as students arrive from other locales, will result in more infections and deaths. Testing, physical distancing, and the use of face coverings will reduce some of the risk, but by no means all of it. One member of the administration’s team stated the administrative position succinctly when they let us know that although they fully understand the public health concerns, they also know the “business of running the university.” There are certainly difficult choices to be made, choices that will impact the experiences of students and the employment of faculty and staff. But has the administration actually decided that a certain number of deaths are the price we have to pay in order to provide new students with a “freshman experience” that, under the current circumstances, will already be vastly limited? In the middle of a deadly pandemic, university administration holds the position that the health and safety of faculty is just one variable among many in their decision-making process.
We would all love to return to our pre-COVID world. We miss coming to campus, interacting with students and colleagues, and attending events. But it is not yet safe to do so. It is essential that the administration take seriously the concerns of faculty, staff, students, and the local community. Lives are, quite literally, at stake. No one should feel compelled to return to in-person work if, by their own assessment, the risk to themselves and their family is too great. We must retain the absolute right to make such life and death decisions for ourselves. We know that there are difficult decisions to be made and interests to be balanced. There is no ideal solution. Let those who feel comfortable returning to campus do so. Let those who need to continue working remotely do so as well. The work that we do is important, but it is not worth anyone’s life.
Now, more than ever, your participation in UAOSU is important. Our next bargaining session is scheduled for Thursday, August 6 from 2:30-4:00 on Zoom. You can register for the session here. If you are not yet a member, we invite you to join us in making the faculty voice heard and safe-guarding the health of not just the institution as an entity but also the people who do the work that makes our university great. You can find more information here.
Your bargaining team