WESTBURY— Like many college and university employees across the state, CSEA members at the State University of New York at Old Westbury have been working hard to prepare for the fall semester, even amid uncertainty due to COVID-19.
While preparedness has been a daunting task for our members working at K-12 public schools, the task is also challenging for CSEA members at SUNY campuses, including SUNY Old Westbury.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, SUNY Old Westbury Local members were already dealing with understaffing. After several local members contracted COVID-19 and one member passed away from the virus, workloads became even heavier for other members.
“Right now, there’s only two guys maintaining the grounds on a 604-acre campus,” said SUNY Old Westbury Shop Steward Jeffrey Dormody. “I think the school administration is trying to hire, but for now, there’s a lot of work. We are trying to use this time that the students aren’t here to get ahead of some of our work.”
As this edition went to press, staff on SUNY campuses have been putting into place numerous changes based on their school’s reopening plans that include remote and in-person classes; health and safety measures for students, faculty and staff; new policies to encourage social distancing and expedited semester schedules.
To help improve safety, SUNY Old Westbury officials are requiring employees to complete a health survey on their phones. Depending on the results, members get a message that either gives them a green or red light.
With a green light message, members then show the image to security workers at campus entrances, who allow them entry. Red light messages mean members must call their supervisor immediately and go home.
Like most other SUNY campuses, SUNY Old Westbury administrators have opted to hold most fall classes online. Only a few hands-on science and art classes will be held in person. Although SUNY schools are governed by the State University of New York Trustees, every school is being treated as its own entity in terms of how to address the pandemic on their respective campuses.
“Each SUNY had to submit a campus plan on how they were going to practice the CDC’s guidelines for the pandemic,” said SUNY Old Westbury Executive Vice President Laura Gallagher. “How the campus is laid out, and how well the school can accommodate students, determined what education on that campus looks like. It would be impossible for so many students to practice social distancing on this campus.”
Because of the campus’ vast size, an alternative care facility for COVID-19 patients was built there in April. The facility is located on the school’s baseball field, next to the gymnasium. The gym has also been converted into a temporary hospital. As this edition went to press, the facility hasn’t yet been used.
Student dormitories will also be closed this fall, as dorm space needs to be available for potential use by health care workers should the need arise.
“We recently received word that the tents will stay up through the fall,” said Gallagher.
Working from home
Like countless workers across the state, SUNY Old Westbury employees have been working remotely since the spring. The school provided many of them with laptops, along with other necessary equipment need to do their jobs.
CSEA members employed at the school are also using a “soft phone number” so they are able to return phone calls without having to use their personal numbers.
“Because of the New York State Telecommuting Pilot Program, campus workers know that we’ll be working remotely until at least October 2,” said Gallagher. “However, people working in areas like the bursar’s office, the registrar’s office and the financial aid office have been asked to come in because those are key offices.”
CSEA SUNY Old Westbury Local officers also teamed up with another union on campus to create a health and safety task force. The group is communicating with management to address the health and safety concerns of union members.
Management has been respectful and responsible toward workers.
“They’re doing the best that they can,” said Gallagher. “I always try to explain to members that none of us were prepared for this.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, CSEA members have increased their level of camaraderie.
“It’s been great to see how [union]members have come together since the pandemic began,” said Gallagher. “I haven’t seen people come together like this since 9/11.”
“We should have been coming together like this in matters of safety and health long before the pandemic,” said Gallagher. “I hope we can maintain this level of solidarity when this crisis is over.”
— Wendi Bowie