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Essential staff remains on campus despite closure

and | Thursday, March 26, 2020

It has been two weeks since Notre Dame closed campus due to the spread of coronavirus. There are no students talking and laughing at Duncan, rushing through corridors before classes start, running and sweating in the gym or gathering for activities in the residence halls. 

Instead, the campus is quiet. The majority of students have left their dorms and Duncan and LaFortune student centers are locked down. It is early spring. The trees are becoming green, but no one is around to enjoy the warmer weather.

However, there are still students who cannot go home and remain on campus. With these students come the essential workers who continue to work.

Zixu Wang | The Observer

A computer lab in Hesburgh Library usually filled with students sits nearly vacant as a result of remote learning for the Spring semester.

As stated in a letter from the Executive Office to faculty and staff Tuesday, essential employees will still be required to work on campus, including the power plant, security and fire departments, custodial services, dining services, core I.T. support and faculty and student instructional support.

As of March 18, there are 29 on-site and 33 on-call employees in the Hesburgh Library, Dennis Brown, University vice president for public affairs and communications, said in an email.

“The health and safety of all members of the campus community and our visitors have always been Notre Dame’s top priority,” he said. “That has never been more true than in these turbulent times when no work is routine.”

Security and building services staff remain on campus working diligently to keep the campus safe and secure, Brown said.

“That includes enhanced patrolling by NDPD to protect both lives and property and continued and specialized cleaning and disinfection services in campus buildings — among many other responsibilities,” he said.

Another letter from the Executive Office on March 14 states supervisors in each department will clarify who is expected to work from home or on campus. For the staff who continue to work on campus, the University remains committed to safety and will continue to adopt recommended safety measures. 

Lynne Zeiger, a member of the security team, said medical issue and age are two reasons for suspending work with NDPD.

“If the staff or their family is ill and has a doctor’s note or if they’re over 60 years old, staff can be approved not to come to campus,” Zeiger said.

Zeiger’s department of five dropped to three over the past week. The two staff members who elected to stay home are both over 60. 

However, in some departments, age is not the reason for applying for a suspension of work.

Yesnia Tillis, a custodian who mainly works in the Hesburgh Library, said being over 60 cannot be used as the reason to terminate work in the department of building services.

“As far as I know, most of [the custodians over 60 years old] are still working pretty much,” Tillis said.

Charles Cecil is a 62-year-old custodian with asthma who mainly works in the law school and has been working during the past two weeks.

Cecil’s workload was cut back to one day a week effective Monday, he said.

In response to policies for older employees, Brown said the University is committed to [providing] the best information from the CDC [to employees] to address this and other personal care questions.”

The majority of departments have decreased the number of staff working on campus. 

Robert Kolic, a member of the IT department of the Hesburgh Library, is one of the few staff members who still works on campus.

“I volunteered to stay on campus because all of my colleagues have kids or the elderly at home whom should be taken care of,” Kolic said. “Meanwhile, it’s just me and my dog when I go home.” 

As the IT department aids in the transition to online courses, Kolic’s workload has increased as he is now responsible for cleaning the frequently used computers in the library.

Meanwhile, custodial staff is limited at Holy Cross where they continue wiping down surfaces and cleaning with sanitizing wipes said vice president for finance Monica Markovich.

While some departments are able to work remotely, others are still required to come to campus. Vaerewyck Scott, a painter in the maintenance department, said his department still follows their regular work schedule because construction is regarded as essential work by Indiana and the University.

Before being interviewed, Scott was scraping off some crannied surface of a wall in the Hesburgh Library, fixing the tunnels inside, priming and painting the wall. When being asked whether this work should be done right now, Scott shrugged.

“It’s not urgent,” he said. “It can wait a couple of days.”

The Executive Office stated all full-time and benefits-eligible part-time regular employees are still being paid at the current base rate, including those who temporarily aren’t working or are self-isolating.

The letter said though the University is facing a serious financial challenge, it is still committed to supporting employees at Notre Dame.

“The University is a well-endowed institution and is able to weather unexpected events and change much better than lots of other organizations, especially in our area,” said Daniel Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program.

Although some staff said the regular payment policy may not be applicable to them, Scott said he will not get paid if he does not come to work because he belongs to “Union Paint” which is an outside contractor of Notre Dame.

“This is a gray area, as my administrator hasn’t explicitly said what they will do with staff staying at home,” Scott said. “But in my understanding, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid, even you have strong reasons like taking care of sick family members.”

For the staff currently working on campus, health protection is essential. However, the University hasn’t provided sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE) for the staff whose work is not directly related to cleaning, according to Zeiger.

“We didn’t receive the masks; we only received gloves, wipes and hand sanitizer from The University because we are required to clean the gate door and handle of the Hesburgh Library once in a while,” Zeiger said. 

Scott said the maintenance staff did not receive hand sanitizers or other sterilizers but did receive masks due to their work conditions.

Custodians Tillis and Cecil both said they received extra gloves, hand sanitizers and can apply for masks if needed. 

Brown said the University is supplying the proper PPE and sanitizing tools to all staff members and encourages those who feel that they are not receiving the proper materials should contact their supervisors.

“The men and women in [NDPD and building services] are properly equipped with masks, gloves, cleaning materials, personal protective equipment and the many other supplies necessary to complete their tasks,” Brown said. “Staff or faculty members in any department who have concerns have been encouraged to speak with their supervisor or human resources. We will always work with those with particular vulnerabilities to make accommodations and ensure they are not at risk.”

The building services staff is participating in ongoing training regarding cleaning and sterilization in response to COVID-19, Tillis said.

However, Zeiger said she wishes to receive more specific guidance or training regarding COVID-19. So far she only received the general notice from NDPD, such as washing your hands and social distancing. 

“I will be less worried if I could get more detailed guidance and more protective equipment,” Zeiger said.

Brown said NDPD staff has been informed on all up-to-date health guidelines and should more information be released, staff will be updated.

“[Staff at NDPD has] been instructed on proper work-specific protocols, all in accordance with guidance provided by the CDC, OSHA and our occupational health physicians,” Brown said. “Should these guidelines change, we will, of course, work with our staff to make necessary and appropriate adjustments.”

Zeiger said she’s the only one in her family who works outside of the home right now.

“I’m worried about contacting someone with COVID-19 and taking it home,” she said. “My daughter is pregnant and living with me, and I’m afraid of bringing the virus to her.”

Zeiger is 57 and has pneumonia. She could apply to stay at home but said she doesn’t have a doctor’s note.

“I want to stay at home, but my colleagues are over 60, and I feel bad if I stay at home while they’re working,” Zeiger said. “They are more vulnerable than me, so I just have to do my part.”

Zeiger said she hoped the University could further decrease the on-site staff by closing more buildings and facilities.

“In this way, fewer staff [members] need to come to the campus, and they can be better protected at home,” she said.

Scott is also worried about his family. He said his wife works in the government tax department and has been considered as the essential staff as well, although the federal government has already postponed the deadline of taxes.

“My wife goes to the office every day, and strangers come to do their taxes one after another,” Scott said. “I don’t access many people in [my] work, but she does. I’m really worried about her.”

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