“Students for Staff” Circulate Petition
At the end of a week of blackouts, broken trees, and canceled classes, students and administrators met in the Public Affairs Center (PAC) on Friday to discuss the University’s response to the snowstorm. A group of students read aloud a “Call to Action” petition they had written and asked the administrators who were present to respond to parts of it. The group presented the petition, with 365 signatures and a three week deadline for the University to take action, to Vice President for Student Affairs Mike Whaley on Monday afternoon. While administrators were receptive to students’ concerns, they also pointed out that staff were not obligated to come into work during the snowstorm.
The petition, which was written by students involved in the “Students for Staff” meetings held last week, includes four concerns for the University to address in the coming three weeks. Students involved in writing the document said it came out of frustrations with the University’s treatment of staff during the blackout.
“As Wesleyan students, many of us felt incredibly uncomfortable that our needs and the pressure to get back to classes as soon as possible was such that people were being asked to come in at a time when it was unsafe to be here,” said Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14, who worked on the petition.
Whaley, who was one of the administrators present at the Friday meeting, agreed that many University employees focus on student needs needs before staff needs.
“There are a lot of us, myself included, who are paid specifically to think about students and there are many fewer who are thinking about the other constituents,” he said. “There are not none, but there are many fewer.”
The petition first calls for the University to provide basic needs to staff and their family, including free laundry, childcare, and transportation. Second, it calls for the University to increase “clear communication” to members of the community, including multi-lingual announcements. Third, it says the University should compensate non-salaried staff for time lost during a crisis, and that staff should not have to use sick and personal days when they cannot get to campus because of crisis conditions. Last, the petition calls for the University to include staff and their families in the discussions addressing crisis response.
“Our concern is that these kinds of events are going to be happening with more and more consistency and frequency as the climate changes,” Sanchez-Eppler said. “So we can’t think of this as an isolated event, we have to be prepared as a university to deal with these events often.”
The students involved in writing the document stayed up until 5 a.m. Friday morning working on the specific language of the petition.
“I tried to address both tone and content in that both were equally difficult in their own ways,” said Virgil Taylor ’15. “I think the petition does a good job of trying to capture the message and the emotion of the group.”
Taylor noted that the group of about 10 students who stayed up writing the Call to Action incorporated many of the ideas voiced by the larger group of students who met last Tuesday to discuss concerns with the University’s treatment of staff.
“When it came to writing the petition, I had taken notes at the meeting and I really felt that I understood what the group was feeling, consensus-wise, and I was more than willing to spend my time typing it up with a small group of people,” Taylor said.
The students working on the petition said they consulted with staff members during the week. According to the group, during the blackout, staff were told to clean dark houses without power, many did not receive all University notifications, and many had to use personal or sick days if they could not make it in to work. During the meeting on Friday, the group of students clarified that many of their concerns in the petition are focused on unionized staff that the University contracts out, such as ABM Industries janitorial staff and staff from Physical Plant and Bon Appetit.
“The administration should care about the rights of the contracted labor,” said Marjorie Dodson ’13, who helped write the petition. “Even though we contract it out, that doesn’t mean that we’re hands off. We have a say in the contract.”
Ryan Katz ’13, who also worked on the petition, said that the group had to be careful not to overpower the voice of staff with student views.
“I think that there’s a very fine line that a lot of us have been trying to walk, because the Call to Action really represents what we as students have perceived, but it in no way really represents the voice of the staff themselves,” he said. “It’s kind of a difficult thing because we want to call attention to the issue without really intervening in it too much.”
He said he believes the document needs more staff input before it is implemented.
“There was definitely dialogue between us and staff, and that’s what prompted [this] in the first place,” he said. “But I think there needs to be more of a dialogue before it really goes forward…I think that a larger amount of staff input on it would be extremely important.”
Whaley also expressed concern that students only spoke with certain groups of staff members, especially in their calls for the Administration to communicate in English and Spanish. He said that Director of Human Resources Julia Hicks noted that there are also many Italian and Cambodian ABM staff.
“It makes you wonder, because it was so specifically Spanish, if they were just hearing from a few Spanish speaking staff members that these issues were a concern,” he said.
At the Friday meeting, Director of Human Resources Pat Melley told the concerned students that hourly workers employed by the University were all paid for the days that were closed, and people that did come into work were paid overtime. She also said the Human Resources department ran an emergency payroll on Monday so that everyone would get paid on time. Hicks also said that University staff would not be dismissed if they did not come to work during a snowstorm.
Dodson and other students were hopeful that even though the University does not directly oversee the unionized labor on campus, they would implement these calls to action in contract renewal negotiations with ABM in December.
“I hope that this directly affects the contract renewals that are coming up with ABM,” Dodson said. “Their contract is coming up for renewal, and we can have some say in that. We expect certain rights for everyone who is associated with our Wesleyan community.”
Paul Blasenheim ’12 said that the meeting with administrators was helpful in that administrators present gave students more specific information to use in their future efforts.
“We were given information as to who the administrator is that we need to talk to in terms of the ABM negotiations,” he said. “As an exchange of information, that’s what the space was very helpful for.”
Whaley said that the administrators present at the meeting were able to learn from students who attended.
“We’re a learning community and we learn from everything we have to deal with—both students and administrators,” he said. “I understood where most of the issues were coming from, maybe we supplied a little bit of information that was helpful and in so doing addressed some of the concerns people had.”
The Friday meeting was organized by Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) President Zachary Malter ’13 and WSA Finance and Facilities Committee Chair Evan Weber ’13. The WSA members then contacted Whaley, who asked other administrators to be present with him. Malter said he believed it was important to hold the meeting quickly after the storm.
“The conversation itself was really important; especially with the blackout fresh in students’ minds, we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to reflect on the situation so that future crises could learn from this one,” he said. “I also think it was a great opportunity to give students insight into the administration’s point of view during the decision-making process.”
Besides focusing on the Call to Action, students at the meeting raised concerns with administrators about the University’s ability to provide resources to Middletown residents without power. Students still without power on Friday asked administrators present why regaining power had taken so long and how this could be improved in future storms. There was also a debate between Associate Provost Karen Anderson and students about starting classes on Wednesday while many students were still without power. Many students at the meeting remained optimistic about the University responses to their concerns in the future.
“I think that the meeting was very positive,” Blasenheim said. “A lot of really articulate points got raised on all sides. We got our point across, we had a lot of people there and [the administrators] validated our concerns.”
Whaley said that a crisis management committee will meet within the next few weeks to debrief about the University’s crisis response and talk about how the emergency response will be adjusted in the future.