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UW-La Crosse makes statement on resident assistant petition

(WEAU)
Published: Sep. 4, 2020 at 3:57 PM CDT
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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WEAU) - Residence hall assistants at UW-La Crosse are considering going on strike if their concerns aren’t answered.

A petition made by RAs on campus has nearly 1,500 signatures. The students have eight demands for their role as they feel UWL put limited protection measures in place for COVID-19, and they’re now at higher risk.

In a statement, UWL says it’s exceeding CDC recommendations with PPE, increased cleaning protcols, and did create a new quarantine position RAs are not asked to fill.

However, some demands the school cannot meet - like higher wage and contract benefits - as the school is prohibited by state law and the uw system from bargaining with students.

A UWL vice chancellor says if a strike happens, campus life will be impacted.

“Our RAs work with our students and it’s important that they’re able to be there to support them and it’s also a matter of health and safety just trying to make sure that they are available for our students,” said UWL Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Vitaliano Figueroa.

The university did make 90 percent of an RA’s job virtual this semester. With classes starting on Tuesday and students continuing to move in to dorms, UWL remains hopeful for a resolution.

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UW-La Crosse leadership is aware of a petition shared by some of our resident assistants, and that they intend to protest what they perceive to be unsafe working conditions on campus.

We fully support our student employees’ right to protest, and we appreciate that health and safety is at the forefront of their minds.

As a university, two of our most important responsibilities are promoting free speech and protecting the wellbeing of our students and employees.

With this in mind, we have spent months developing a robust health and safety plan that serves not just our campus as a whole, but our Residence Life staff, specifically. This plan addresses and satisfies many of the expectations as stated in the petition.

1: All Residence Life staff (professional, office, student staff, assistant hall directors, hall directors, housekeepers and assistant housekeepers) will receive better-quality personal protective equipment. CDC recommendation: All staff wear cloth face coverings while in contact with others. UWL plan: • Plexiglass has been installed at all front desks • PPE including masks, gloves and shields are standardly supplied for all Residence Life staff • Additional PPE is stored at each building for use while on duty (performing safety rounds of the building) and working face-to-face shifts • Full-time housekeeping staff use Tyvek suits and N95 masks during cleaning shifts of COVID-affected areas, specifically, but are able to wear during all cleaning shifts, if they so choose • Showers have been made available for anyone who has been addressing COVIDaffected areas (especially housekeeping staff) • N95 masks have been ordered and will be supplied to staff who must enter Wentz Hall and/or COVID-affected areas • Student housekeeper staff will not be directly cleaning COVID-affected areas (they will focus on high-traffic areas/high-touch points), but will be provided N95 masks, as well • All buildings have disposable masks (at desks) to provide to residents or staff in the hall, as needed • Additional PPE can/will be supplied if there are additional requests; all PPE will be replaced if broken, damaged or in need of refreshment • Most importantly, approximately 90% of typical in-person duties have been pulled back or moved to virtual formats in an effort to limit contact.

2: Implement routine schedules to ensure clean, empty and safe public spaces. Our home is our workspace and classroom now. We should be protected at all costs because our lives are not expendable. Most professional staff within Residence Life began as resident assistants and grew their passion for student engagement and housing as college students themselves. The suggestion they, or any other university employees, consider the lives of students, staff or faculty to be expendable is both baseless and unconstructive. Typical cleaning protocols: Cleaning staff wear gloves. Bathrooms and public spaces are cleaned daily. Emergent/crisis cleaning happens as needed. Fall 2020 cleaning protocols: • Full-time housekeeping staff use Tyvek suits and N95 masks during cleaning shifts of COVID-affected areas, specifically, but are able to wear during all cleaning shifts, if they so choose. • Bathrooms, study areas, kitchens and laundry areas have self-sanitizing stations for general use by students • Cleaning supplies available for residents at front desks • Routine cleaning occurring 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily • A second-shift custodian will be hired to address late-evening/early-morning and weekend needs; additional needs will be managed by an on-call rotation • More than $25,000 of additional supplies and equipment have been purchased to assist with cleaning and sanitizing the halls during move-in; more will be purchased as replenishment is needed. Additional facilities alterations: • Many study areas/lounges have been locked and restricted for use • Computer labs have been locked and restricted for use • Kitchen usage has been limited to preparing/heating food, only. No storage of ingredients or utensils is allowed; no equipment will be available for checkout; refrigerators in common kitchens have been unplugged • Front desk alterations: Plexiglass has been installed at all desks Food service has been eliminated Equipment checkout has been reduced to cleaning supplies, as needed The centralized Eagle Mail Center is reducing person-to-person contact for mail and package distribution and barring non-UWL persons from entering individual residential buildings. • Hand sanitizing stations have been installed in all halls • Drinking fountain spouts have been covered; water bottle fillers are still available in halls • Floor markers have been installed for appropriate physical distancing • Campus-wide signage has been installed on all entry doors stating masks are required • Furniture has been removed in large lounge areas to adhere to physical distancing expectations Additional Information: • All staff have been made aware of the process for medical accommodations through Human Resources. If a staff member is eligible for medical accommodations as approved by HR, Residence Life has and will support the recommended accommodations • All staff have been made aware of the resources available to them as students and staff (Employee Assistance Programs, Counseling and Testing Center, Student Health Center/Medical Benefits Options, etc.).

3: Student staff are guaranteed job security and contract benefits including stipends, housing and meals for the length of our contracts during and after negotiations, as well as during the COVID-19 pandemic. The university is prohibited from negotiating collective bargaining as a matter of Wisconsin state law. UW System policy governs the “Student Help” classification of employee, of which student employees in Residence Life are a part. Student Help employees are considered “at-will.” However, the primary goal of our student employment positions is to add a transformative experiential element to student education. UW-La Crosse believes that the learning gained in employment fosters additional growth and helps students meet their financial needs. Employee discipline should be a last resort. The university and the Office of Residence Life are committed to continuing to address student concerns in an effort to keep student staff safe and continue their employment with the university.

4: Student staff will receive hazard pay of at least $15 an hour for in-person related tasks (e.g. duty rounds, working the front desk, etc.). Otherwise, our work remains 100% virtual assistance to residents of the hall. This is the most difficult concern for us to address. The university is prohibited by state law and UW System policy from engaging in any form of collective bargaining with the students, but recognizes their right to lobby for a change to state law. The resident assistant compensation package is a combination of free room and board (valued at $6,981) and a monthly stipend that ranges from $600 to $1,400 per year, depending on seniority. Approximately 90% of the job responsibilities for live-in staff (full-time and student) have been made virtual. Virtual meeting rooms have been created to connect with residents. Students will be asked not to knock on their resident assistant’s door to reduce individual exposure in their physical living space. However, the safety of our residents is of the utmost importance. One of the reasons we have live-in staff members is to provide timely response in case of emergency or crisis. There will be requirements for face-to-face interactions, with the expectation that physical distancing and PPE policies are followed. We are asking resident assistants not to enter student rooms during these interactions, but to address concerns from a physical distance. If it is required to have private face-to-face interactions, a large room has been designated for staff use. Physical distance and masks are always required. While we understand that live-in staff positions are time- and relationship-intensive, we continue to encourage staff to set boundaries of how and when to be available to their residents, even in a virtual setting. Position hours are allocated to several job-related functions. This year, we reallocated hours to include support staffing needs at front desks. The reason for this is to provide resources and support to residents, help enforce polices, and deter guests/gathering in the lobby areas. While these shifts are in-person, PPE and physical distancing are required. Also, plexiglass has been installed at each desk.

5: There will be direct and transparent communication from administration to student staff members so we can clearly work through and agree to new changes within our contract for our positions without the fear of losing our jobs. Communication can always be improved, and the work of communicating is never complete. The administration and professional staff in the Office of Residence Life commit to this important work at every level. However, the most effective communication cannot be one-directional. Over these months of planning for fall 2020, the Office of Residence Life has opened the conversation and planning process to student staff contribution and feedback. We ask that student staff actively engage in these conversations.

6: The quarantine position will be fulfilled by a medical professional instead of a hall director, assistant hall director, student staff member or residents in our halls, as we are not trained for this position, nor are we protected by UWL Residence Life liability. Following the model of other campuses within the UW System (and nationally), we have created a position to support contactless delivery needs (daily meals, keys, etc.). We’ve also made efforts to ensure that staff have the necessary PPE to enter spaces where there may be at increased risk of being exposed to COVID-19. By providing this as a paid, separate position, we are allowing it to be a choice rather than an additional job expectation placed on all live-in staff members. The intention is that students in this position would only be in COVID-affected areas for less than 15 minutes and in appropriate PPE, thus following CDC guidelines for reducing risk.

7: UWL Residence Life will fund and mandate weekly rapid response COVID-19 testing. All residence assistant staff have completed their first COVID-19 antigen test as of Tuesday, Sept. 1. These tests will be administered up to 12 times per individual over the course of the fall 2020 semester. There are about 15 weeks in the semester. Test supplies and testing staff resources are finite, and will need to be distributed among all students. Our plan balances the testing protocol for resident assistants with the needs of the campus as a whole.

8: The Office of Residence Life will support the efforts of UWL Residence Life Student Staff Member Coalition and grant them voting power in administrative decisions as a continual effort to receive feedback from their lifeline workers. Much of the work of the Office of Residence Life is regulated through Wisconsin state legislation, UW System policies, and the Association of College and University Housing Officers, International (ACUHO-I), and is not decided by vote. However, we will continue to seek out and value the student staff voice. Concerns can and should be shared with hall directors and Residence Life professional staff through typical employee/staff collaboration.

The health and safety of our campus community has always been our highest priority, matched only by our mission to provide students with an excellent education.

Claims that UWL has done nothing to protect resident assistants or other Residence Life staff are not only unfounded, but disparaging to staff and faculty who have spent untold hours preparing for our safe return to campus in these unprecedented times.

We have a responsibility to ensure that campus operations are not disrupted, especially during such a critical time in our response to a public health crisis. However, if any of our resident assistants choose to resign, we will respectfully honor their decision.

At UWL, we deeply value our resident assistants and believe them to be some of the most engaged, exemplary students on campus. We are proud of them and the work they do. We would love for them to continue serving our university, and to feel they can do so safely.

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