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With the semester’s second well-being break on Tuesday, University of Michigan staff are petitioning to be included in the University’s days off, saying the breaks both exclude staff and have caused some to take on extra work as a result of the change in schedule.
University staff encompasses anyone at the University who is not a student or faculty member, including technicians, program coordinators, custodial staff and food workers, among others.
Students have criticized the well-being breaks — which replace the typical week-long spring break in an attempt to minimize travel — for not allowing enough time for rest during the semester. In their open letter accompanying the petition, staff members acknowledged that two days off throughout the semester is not adequate for anybody at the University but said it is the “bare minimum” that should have been extended to all members of the campus community.
Though University staff are not traditionally included in most University breaks, including spring break, they get the week between Christmas and New Year’s off as paid time off, according to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald. This year, they received three extra days to this break period, he wrote in an email to The Daily.
“The fall break and spring break that are part of the typical academic calendar are not days off for staff members, so neither are the wellness days, which were specifically added to provide students with a mid-week break,” Fitzgerald wrote.
The petition, which began earlier this month and currently has over 440 signatures, says staff members have experienced increased stress while adapting to pandemic-related changes. As of 2019 the Ann Arbor campus had 16,181 faculty and staff. In the petition, staff said their omission from the well-being days signaled to them that the University does not prioritize the needs of staff members.
“Staff are not immune to the pandemic-related stress being experienced across the UM community,” the petition reads. “The decision to direct staff to keep the University running in the absence of faculty and students sends the message that the University does not value our well-being.”
In their open letter, staff members discussed the struggles they have faced during the pandemic, including social isolation, financial difficulties and the “increased challenges associated with maintaining a healthy work-life balance.”
Staff members have been vocal about the University’s plans for handling the COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning of the fall semester, when they sent an open letter to the administration on Sept. 17, 2020 denouncing the University’s decision to take legal action against the striking Graduate Employees’ Organization and calling on them to include staff in major decision-making processes. They also wrote that the University demanded more work from staff without adequate compensation.
“Staff have been asked to volunteer services outside of their appointments, including performing building safety checks over the summer, assisting during Fall move-in, and surveilling students’ behavior on campus without the universal testing necessary to ensure our health,” the letter reads. “While our responsibilities for keeping students, faculty, and other Staff safe have increased, many of us have been temporarily furloughed and have had our compensation frozen or reduced.”
The March letter echoes this point, noting that many staff also experienced an increase in work as a result of students and faculty having a day off.
“Because faculty and students were encouraged not to work on February 24th, many staff were forced to compensate for these absences,” the letter reads. “Staff took on more work during these days to keep the institution running. There were canceled or rescheduled meetings that caused us greater work-related stress.”
Two University staff members who were involved in writing the petition spoke to The Michigan Daily on the condition of anonymity about work conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both asked to remain anonymous out of fear of professional retaliation.
The first staff member, who will be referred to under the pseudonym Sarah, said the adjustments the University made at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 — including lay-offs and the hiring freeze — have resulted in an increased workload and made it more difficult for staff to separate work and home lives.
“We’re past the whole adjustment, but we’re all still burnt out,” Sarah said. “We’re all working over capacity and we’re tired.”
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily that staff members fulfill essential roles on campus and that the University has taken steps to accommodate their needs.
“University Human Resources established special time-off banks to help employees adjust to the disruption in their work lives during the pandemic,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The University has helped many staff members continue to perform their work responsibilities from home. The university offers assistance and counseling through the Faculty and Staff Consultation Office.”
The second staff member The Daily spoke with, referred to using the pseudonym Ashley, said working for the University is already a high-stress job, but that the pandemic has added an inescapable anxiety which makes breaks throughout the semester necessary.
“I think that breaks are important under normal conditions, but when you have some people who are parents, who are still watching their kids, that is a tremendous amount of stress,” Ashley said. “It’s really important that you do have those days that you can take a breath and not have to worry about juggling your job and the stress of the pandemic.”
Ashley said staff members want to hold the University accountable and demand that they include the needs of staff when making decisions about pandemic-related changes or breaks.
“We thought a petition seemed like a really great way to say, ‘We’re not feeling heard, we’re not feeling valued,’” Ashley said. “They hoped it would push the University to extend the same courtesy that (they are) giving students and faculty to the staff.”
Music, Theatre & Dance senior Michael Gerace said the University could not function without staff, and that he supports including staff in the well-being days to acknowledge all the work they do for the University.
“The jobs they do require a lot of hard work and a lot of time and during a pandemic everything takes an extra three steps,” Gerace said. “The staff need equal time to take care of themselves.”
Daily Staff Reporter Paige Hodder can be reached at email@example.com.
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