The University of Massachusetts will allow Peer Mentors to work remotely during the upcoming fall semester, officials said following an impact bargaining session with the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union on Thursday.
“PMs with the ability to perform the work remotely, shall be given the option to work remotely (from off-campus homes, locations, etc.) for the Fall 2020 semester,” Labor Relations Representative Phil Brown stated in an email to the RA/PM Union.
According to RA/PM Union Co-Chair James Cordero, a senior English and social thought and political economy double major, the University said it will also provide seven masks and free COVID-19 testing to each Resident Assistant and Peer Mentor who will be working on-campus, and RAs and PMs working on-site will be eligible for workers’ compensation.
On Wednesday, the Union engaged in its final bargaining session with UMass to negotiate over working conditions for the upcoming fall semester. About 40 RAs and PMs met with Brown, Residential Life Residence Education Director Jean MacKimmie and Director of Labor Relations Brian Harrington.
The Union demanded that RAs and PMs be considered “hired staff.” According to Article 15 of the Agreement Between the Board of Trustees of the University of Massachusetts and the United Automobile Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers, Local 2322 Resident Assistants/Peer Mentors Unit, RAs and PMs receive a salary from the University. The University, however, does not consider RAs and PMs “hired staff.”
“It’s a legal loophole the University is using to get out of their obligations regarding our contract,” Cordero said. “Our contract states that the University can lay off RAs and PMs…but our contract says they still have to pay the full financial compensation of those who get laid off. UMass has used this as a loophole by saying that we’re not technically hired. We’ve been offered hired positions, and we were put in the hired pool of their internal system, but we were not formally contractually hired. Therefore, if they choose to fire us all tomorrow, they can do that without meeting any of their contractual obligations to us.”
According to the agreement, RAs and PMs “shall continue to receive their full stipends for the remainder of their contracted appointment period” in the event that “a work site is closed for health and safety reasons and the RAs or [PMs] are not moved to an alternate work site.”
“It’s a cowardly move, to be honest,” Cordero said. “And it shows that UMass is really not willing to give any of their workers security during this pandemic. They’re arguing that they don’t need to abide by that part of the contract because the way it’s written, according to their interpretation, is that they would only be laying someone off if that person had already been hired. We’ve been offered appointments, but we’ve not been officially ‘hired.’”
University representatives rejected this proposal.
“We understand your position,” Brown said during the bargaining session. “However, we’re sticking with ‘when you’re hired, you’re hired.’”
RAs and PMs working on campus will be given 450 dining dollars in addition to their current meal plans for the fall semester. RAs and PMs without meal plans will still be provided with the 450 dining dollars. The Union requested that the option be made available for RAs and PMs to receive an amount equivalent to 450 dining dollars in the form of a credit, but were denied the request.
“It is just an administrative burden on our side to create just another option,” Brown said.
The Union had originally demanded a higher amount, citing that the RAs and PMs working on campus in the spring received 500 additional dining dollars after the University transitioned to remote learning in March. This demand was denied.
“We get your position about the last semester, we view it as a different situation than the last semester,” Brown said in response. “Last semester, COVID had just really hit. It was more of an unknown at that point in time, people were being sent off campus, the campus itself was actually closed. Now we’re inviting people back, there’s more knowledge about COVID and treatments, we’re expecting over 300 RAs/PMs, which is six times the amount from the spring, we’ve gotten additional equipment and we’ve got testing.”
Article 19 of the agreement, pertaining to “Health and Safety”, stated that “If the University Office of Environmental Health and Safety determines that protective clothing or equipment are required by a RA or PM, the University will furnish such protective clothing or equipment. Subject to budgetary constraints, the University will attempt to provide an adequately maintained workplace, including maintenance of existing air conditioning and ventilation systems.”
The Union also demanded that UMass provide RAs and PMs with their heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) plans for ensuring adequate ventilation throughout the residence halls, as well as an official protocol for how RAs and PMs should enforce safety standards, such as social distancing.
“They haven’t provided [the HVAC plans],” Cordero said. “They’ve said that it’s something they’re working on, and that’s it. That’s all we’ve ever heard from them, even though we’ve been requesting this for the better part of a month now. Again, this is really in line with their reopening plan. The reopening plan is not complete by any means.”
“We’d like to reach an agreement today, and we understand that there’s some open information that you’re seeking, specifically the enforcement and the HVAC,” Brown said during the bargaining session. “Well, we don’t have the HVAC to provide today. But you know, I think that we’ve provided a good amount of information with respect to both the HVAC and the enforcement, hopefully to address your concerns.”
By the end of the bargaining session, Brown and MacKimmie agreed that the requested HVAC plans would be provided to RAs and PMs as soon as possible, and the protocols regarding safety standard enforcement would be provided by the RA/PM training period, which is scheduled to begin on August 10.
Before the impact bargaining session came to a close, Brown told the Union that he and MacKimmie would address any additional questions, as long as the Union did not intend to engage in further impact bargaining.
Impact bargaining occurs between an employer and an employee union whenever working conditions change. Article 10 of the agreement states: “Any changes to job descriptions that materially affect the wages, hours and working conditions of members of the bargaining unit shall be addressed through impact bargaining.”
“Just as long as the information is sufficient to the union that you’re not going to be looking to impact bargain when we send out the protocols, you know we’re happy to sit down and discuss and hear any questions and try to address those questions, but I just want to make sure that we’re on the same page,” Brown said.
The Union agreed, but some members remain wary as to whether or not UMass will follow through, but will be prepared to engage in a “safety strike.”
“Seven masks, free COVID tests, the 450 [dining dollar] cost of living adjustment…I will believe the University when they follow through on their word,” Cordero said. “As always, RAs and PMs will be organizing, especially the on-site staff. We will be refusing to do work that we think is going to unnecessarily spread COVID. We will be measuring public health metrics, like COVID rates and the number of infections on campus and in the community, and we will be prepared to outright safety strike if we feel that COVID cannot be contained.”
The agreement’s Article 19 also states: “No RA or PM, shall be forced to work in a situation which presents a serious threat to their health or safety. An RA or PM who believes they have been assigned tasks that present a threat to their health or [safety] can refuse the task.”
“Of course we are still going to [fight] for the safety and dignity of the RAs and PMs and for a just closing plan in case there is an outbreak and the University needs to send people home,” said Tamar Stollman, a junior political science and BDIC double major, who will be a peer mentor this fall.
“Our next steps are to organize a safety campaign,” said RA/PM Union Co-Chair Natalie Luftman, a senior natural resource conservation major. “We are coming up with a list of tasks that workers are going to refuse to do because they are unsafe.”
The RA/PM Union did not receive hazard pay, but plans to continue to demand it for its workers for the fall semester.
“We are happy at the amount of progress we were able to make within a month,” Luftman said. “However, the University is still refusing hazard pay for onsite workers, so there is still a lot to do.”
“We’ll still be demanding hazard pay, we’ll still be demanding public health and safety measures,” Cordero said. “This is not over. This is public health and safety, and lives are on the line. We take that seriously. I wish I could tell you I believe that UMass takes this as seriously as we do, but given that they are plenty of lapses in their reopening plan and that they’ve only started to improve, because we’ve pressured them…I’m going to trust my fellow RAs and PMs to keep the campus community safe, much more than I trust residential life.”
McKenna Premus is an Assistant Social Media Editor and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @mckenna_premus.