When the chancellor’s office of California State University released a press statement on Dec. 9, 2020, anticipating the reopening of its 23 campuses for the Fall 2021 semester, the announcement was made with enthusiasm for the return to in-person instruction.
“We are approaching planning for the 2021 fall term with the goal of having the majority of our on-campus experiences returning. This decision comes at a good time [for prospective students] to complete their applications,” said then CSU Chancellor-select Joseph I. Castro in the statement.
Despite initial enthusiasm for a potential reopening, some CSU staff and faculty were not as pleased to learn alongside the general public instead of being notified ahead of time.
“It is disrespectful that the Academic Senate was not consulted on this. The union was not consulted. And we didn’t even get the privilege of being notified before the general public. So yeah, you can say that feels fairly insulting,” said Kevin Wehr, associate professor at Sacramento State and vice president of the California Faculty Association. The CFA provides a democratic voice for CSU faculty and serves as a representative that bargains for working conditions for its employees.
While the chancellor’s office released a general statement, many found out about the upcoming plans from an article published through the LA Times.
Katie Murphy, who works in the communications department at SF State and serves as a representative for the California State University Employees Union, discovered the news when a coworker shared an article about the statement from the Chancellor’s Office. According to CSU representative Michael Uhlenkamp, the press statement was how the Chancellor’s Office intended for most to learn the news.
“As staff, it is not unusual to learn things about my workplace at the same time as the general public. Frustrating, but not unusual,” Murphy said.
As campuses prepare their plans for the projected reopening, the CFA continues negotiations to come to a bargaining agreement for adequate resources and proper safety procedures. Without their needs being met, CFA leaders say they will continue to fight to maintain the rights of the faculty, staff and students and defend their rights to safe working conditions.
Following the CSU’s failure to inform faculty and staff ahead of the announcement, Wehr and the CFA bargaining team arranged a meeting with the chancellor’s office in order to impose the guidelines to promote safety and protection for its staff and faculty. These negotiations remain ongoing.
“The CSU is responsible for providing a safe workplace for all employees. The employee unions will make sure the CSU actually follows through on that responsibility,” Murphy said.
The CFA asks for continued healthcare for all faculty currently employed, strict sanitation for all in-person instruction areas and the enforcement of personal protection equipment and physical distance instructions, in accordance with the union’s guideline, “Our Way Forward”. The CFA also demands demilitarization of campus police, meaning no military-style dress and equipment that has a menacing effect and no racial profiling of faculty and students.
The CFA bargaining team first met with CSU leadership on Jan. 14, but it is unclear how long negotiations will last, Wehr said.
According to Ingrid Williams, vice president of Human Resources at SF State, several unions have signed a memorandum of understanding — a signed contract of agreement between two parties — with the CSU, settling issues about campus employees returning to on-site work as long as SF State follows California Division of Occupational Safety and Health guidelines, but negotiations continue nonetheless.
“At this point, it’s too early to say what fall will look like. We’re planning to bring back only as many students and employees as is safe,” said Williams.
On Monday, Chico State University announced plans to bring back 25%-30% of classes in the Fall 2021 semester, lower than the 50% in-person classes the overall CSU anticipates on bringing back in the fall.
According to Uhlenkamp, each campus will open accordingly to its local public health agencies to best determine how to serve their staff and students. Each campus will be delegated the authority to develop its own plans in conjunction with its local public health agency. Campuses will then share their plans with the Chancellor’s Office, to be reviewed and finalized, but nothing is certain.
Murphy said she recalled staff scrambling to fend for themselves and submitting telecommuting request forms last March. This was in contrast to faculty and students, who had time to transition to working from home. Staff wasn’t informed about the possibility to work from home until the Friday before the first shelter-in-place order was ordered.
Murphy worries that SF State will only enforce safety procedures in line with institutional hierarchy and will bypass procedures it finds inconvenient.
“Staff are rightfully worried that the University will continue a pattern of devaluing staff knowledge by dismissing our concerns and suggestions about campus safety,” Murphy said.