For one member of the University of Miami’s janitorial staff, surviving the coronavirus pandemic means choosing life over livelihood.
Fraught with several chronic conditions, the worker, who requested to remain anonymous to protect her job, said her doctor told her in April that she should avoid contact with the public because of the coronavirus.
“I have to stay home. Otherwise, I’ll be dead,” said the employee who suffers from HIV, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure and asthma.
“Given her multiple comorbidity syndromes, she is a patient at high risk for mortality and morbidity,” her doctor’s note said.
First employed at the university in 1987 and then in 2014 by ABM, a facilities management company subcontracted by UM, the worker is one of more than 400 employees who have been forced to make similar tough decisions. After campus began closing in March, janitorial workers became part of the university’s ongoing effort to keep the campus clean amid the spread of coronavirus. But over the past few months, workers with health concerns have had to either dispel their fears of contracting COVID-19 or go without pay until further notice.
“It’s terrible. We have to take care of ourselves,” said the ABM employee. She is staying home at a desperate time of need, she said.
“My husband has the same condition I have,” she said. “I don’t know how long this is going to be.”
After repeated attempts from The Miami Hurricane, ABM did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Chartwells, another UM subcontractor, laid off more than 260 workers who staff the university’s dining halls and campus restaurants.
In mid-March, workers were laid off and told that their benefits would end mid-May, leaving them without health care during a global pandemic, the workers reported. Following negotiations in May between the workers’ union and Chartwells, dining workers were later granted health care through the summer.
However, they are spending the summer without paid leave or any guarantee of employment at the university this fall, the workers reported.
Michael Ross, the resident district manager for Chartwells at UM told The Miami Hurricane that Chartwells is continuing to assist all of its workers and is planning for a return this fall.
“We have been supporting all of our furloughed associates by paying out their unused PTO, providing assistance with the unemployment process and making all payments to cover their health care premiums,” Ross said. “The associates are always offered the opportunity to return to work in the fall, and we have every intention of providing the same opportunity and bringing our associates back safely.”
Over the past few months, the university’s subcontracted workers along with their union and faculty and student members of the Miami Employee Student Alliance have been working to pressure UM to either directly assist these workers or negotiate better treatment for them from ABM and Chartwells.
According to a representative from MESA, who requested anonymity for job security concerns, Chartwells employees are regularly laid off each summer as the university scales back dining services. Typically, Chartwells employees are allowed to keep their benefits during summer months while they file for unemployment or find other ways to make ends meet, the representative explained. But with a premature end to the spring semester and no guarantee that students would be returning in the fall, many Chartwells dining workers were left without jobs until further notice and anxiety over the possibility of having to endure at least a summer without health care.
Several dining workers said they found themselves asking why this was happening, especially during a pandemic.
“It’s kind of emotional in a way. You got children, you got grandchildren, you got friends,” said one dining worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job. “It might hit home, you never know. And you don’t know when money will come into your house.”
Another Chartwells employee expressed similar health concerns.
“I don’t have money to pay for insurance. I’m 65, I need insurance,” the anonymous Chartwells employee said. “The insurance benefits mean a lot to me.”
The Service Employees International Union, which represents both ABM facilities workers and Chartwells dining staff, was eventually able to secure continued health care coverage for Chartwells workers through the summer.
Ana Maria Tinsly, a senior communications associate at SEIU, told The Miami Hurricane this deal was made based on an assumption that the university would be returning to full operations in the fall.
In a message to the UM community sent on June 15, President Julio Frenk confirmed the university does intend to return. As of June 26, Florida has had 122,960 confirmed cases of coronavirus. If cases continue to increase and the university’s plan changes, Tinsly said the union may have to renegotiate.
Tinsley maintained that it is the university’s responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of its workers.
“It is their responsibility to ensure that the food service workers, janitors and maintenance workers who have made it possible for the university to operate smoothly and charge students $50,000 a year—are fully protected and employed,” Tinsley said.
During this time, workers have been encouraged to seek unemployment money, but several reported that they have had difficulty getting unemployment money from the government as was owed to them under the CARES Act, a historic $2 trillion stimulus bill put into law this past March. Many subcontracted workers have struggled to pay rent and other bills, the workers said.
Workers and UM community members urge university to support subcontracted workers during pandemic
In a letter sent on March 24 to President Frenk, Provost Jeffrey Duerk, Laura Kohn Wood, dean of the School of Education and Guillermo Prado, dean of the Graduate School, both MESA members and the SEIU called on the university to leverage a better contract with ABM and Chartwells for janitorial, groundskeeping and dining workers.
None of the administrators who received the letter responded to requests for comment from The Miami Hurricane.
“We support our workers because they are a part of our community, they are us,” a representative from MESA said. “ That’s what we want President Frenk to see.”
The group said it received an immediate, supportive response from Dean Kohn Wood, yet their communication ended there.
Administration responds to workers’ concerns
On April 1, Jacqueline Travisano, the executive vice president for business and chief operating officer at UM, sent a response on behalf of Frenk thanking both MESA and the union for their concern and assuring them that Chartwells and ABM employees are valued and are being actively supported by their companies.
“In this time of crisis, we are grateful to all of the women and men that continue to provide essential services to keep our campuses and facilities safe and healthy and to continue to feed our remaining students on campus as well as our employees,” Travisano said.
She asserted that ABM has not downsized its staff and that they are working with employees on a case-by-case basis to provide assistance and coverage. While Chartwells was affected more heavily, Travisano wrote that the company tried to prepare for this ahead of time.
Some of the laid-off dining workers were able to fill open positions with ABM’s sister company, Morrison’s, which services the cafeterias at the UM medical campus, Travisano wrote.
However, one worker reported that this opportunity never materialized for him, while several other workers were afraid to work at the hospital during the pandemic, the MESA representative said.
Travisano’s response, along with a Spanish translation, was shared with several employees who were reportedly disheartened.
“There was hope that such a letter would lead to some tangible relief or next steps of communication,” the MESA spokesperson said. “Travisano’s response felt like the administration was swiftly ending the conversation.”
A petition calling on UM to support its workers spreads around university community
Shortly afterwards, a petition was launched on coworker.org entitled “University of Miami, Pay and Protect ALL Employees” on April 3. The petition, which has garnered more than 1,500 signatures so far, states that the university’s culture of belonging should include all community members and urges the university to guarantee paid leave for workers, among other demands.
Written in both English and Spanish, the petition stated the following: “We request that if the campuses close, that the University of Miami makes sure that we don’t go without a paycheck if we are sent home during this crisis by providing us with additional paid time off until we can come back to work.”
The union also scanned and sent a hand-signed version of the petition with signatures of 321 subcontracted workers directly to Frenk, who was reportedly working from home at the time.
The workers have not yet received a response directly from Frenk.
Workers receive partial win in their fight for better treatment during pandemic, but continue to seek help from university
ABM workers were later granted the option on April 10 to stay home with benefits if they did not feel comfortable or medically able to come into work. Before workers are able to go on leave, they must first use up all of their paid sick and vacation days, a MESA representative explained.
Some workers are wary of ABM’s commitment to securing the positions of those who choose to stay home.
“I don’t trust them. I wouldn’t take that unemployment for nothing. No way. I wouldn’t take a penny. I’m afraid that they will tell you that ‘We don’t need you,’” said an ABM employee.
Janitorial and dining workers will make up pinnacle part of UM’s return plan
In late April, Frenk first outlined his four-pillar plan for a safe return this fall. Later modified, the second pillar of this plan now includes intense cleaning and sanitization of the university. In an example of what this might look like, Patricia Whitely, vice president for student affairs, said residential bathrooms would be cleaned up to three times per day in the fall during an Instagram Live on June 24.
The university did not respond to repeated questions from The Miami Hurricane as to whether or not it would be hiring more janitorial workers to carry out this plan.
A statement from the university confirmed the current plan is to fully reopen dining while ensuring proper protections for workers: “The health and safety of all workers, including those who are employees of Chartwells and ABM, is of utmost importance as the university moves forward with reopening plans.”
The university confirmed that workers will be provided personal protection equipment and that it is working with both Chartwells and ABM to provide a safe working environment by following CDC protocols.
When campus first began to close during the pandemic, janitorial workers said they were provided inadequate protective gear. A member of MESA said that workers initially were given one disposable mask per week, but now have reusable cloth masks and face shields.
During a faculty senate meeting on April 22, a resolution was passed and later delivered to Frenk calling for workers to be provided a new mask every day at work and for all safety measures planned for the fall, such as distancing, testing, contact tracing and free flu shots to be extended to workers.
Workers continue to fight for paid leave
The MESA representative said that they believe the university has the funding to take care of its workers during this time if they are made a priority.
On behalf of the workers’ union, Tinsley further asserted that the university has the money to ensure jobs for its subcontracted workers.
“The university is one of the most financially healthy institutions in South Florida,” she said. “There should be no talks of layoffs whatsoever.”
Through the CARES Act, which allocated $30.75 billion for an “Education Stabilization Fund” for K-12 and higher education, UM was allocated $8 million.
In an email sent to UM faculty and staff back in April, President Frenk shared that the university is set to “lose hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming year,” leading the university to expand budget cuts and furlough or lay off employees in various departments.
In a message shared to The Miami Hurricane, another anonymous ABM worker said that workers will need to grapple with their current situation.
“This is life but we have to be realistic. The risk of contagion is getting higher every day and it is our decision to choose between staying home without wages or continuing to work. Everyone will have to decide between Health and Money,” she said.
Several ABM employees shared that they are disappointed that the university has not actively supported them better.
“I thought that they were going to consider it as an emergency,” another anonymous ABM employee said. “Unfortunately they did not consider it that way, and I think perhaps because it is a subcontracting company of UM and not direct employees of it.”
The MESA representative explained that subcontracted workers are a part of the Cane community and should be treated accordingly.
“I wonder if the only way to be considered a Cane is to have a direct financial relation with the university,” the MESA representative challenged. “Not only pandemics kill people, the way institutions work can also kill people.”
Noor Khaled contributed to the reporting of this story.
Featured photo by Jared Lennon, photo editor.