Resident advisers announce strike in protest of U-M COVID-19 response

Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 1:22am

.

Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

More than 100 residential advisers at the University of Michigan voted to strike Tuesday night in demand of increased COVID-19 protections and hazard pay for student University Housing employees. The strike, beginning Wednesday morning, will have varying effects throughout the University’s residence halls, mostly impacting mailroom operations and lockout services.

The R.A.s’ vote comes one day after the Graduate Employees’ Organization announced its strike on Labor Day.

Participating R.A.s announced their strike to Housing leadership and their residents Wednesday morning. Organizers of the strike told The Daily that the strike will end at the discretion of the group, when it is decided that enough demands are met.

Some R.A.s from residence halls across the University will be stopping work. Organizers told The Daily that participation in the strike looks different from residence hall to residence hall, with some electing to strike in phases to minimize harm to their residents and to avoid retaliation from specific Housing directors. 

Out of approximately 140 total votes, more than 100 supported a strike — a 71 percent affirmative vote. The University employs around 240 R.A.s in total.

In cases of a full strike, R.A.s choosing to participate will not staff mailrooms or community centers, according to documents reviewed by The Daily. Essential packages such as medicine and important documents will instead be handled by R.A.s not on strike or non-student housing staff such as housing directors, the documents said.

R.A.s on full strike will also not perform duty shifts, with the exception of enforcing COVID-19 policies informally. If students are locked out, they can try to contact the R.A. on duty. Similarly, if students need a temporary key, they should see if another housing staff member is working at the community center.

If no one is available to help in either case, students will be instructed to contact the University’s Division of Public Safety and Security instead. In this regard, the R.A. strike diverges from GEO’s strike, which is demanding a reduction in police presence on campus. 

In a press release, the R.A.s said the strike “was not an easy or hastily-made decision.”

“We recognize the impact that a ResStaff strike will have on our residents, and it was our biggest reason for not striking during move-in,” the press release reads. “However, we have reached a breaking point.” 

The striking R.A.s are asking for increased COVID-19 protections such as regular access to testing for all ResStaff — not just symptomatic individuals — and “sufficient, effective” personal protective equipment for ResStaff and students. They are also asking for hazard pay.

Additionally, the R.A.s are asking for “a formal statement of no retaliation from Housing Administration should a ResStaff Union be formed.”

The R.A.s are also calling for greater enforcement of social distancing and face coverings inside the residence halls, in particular requesting that the “no-guest” policy be enforced by non-student employees. If a student fails to abide by social distancing policies, the R.A.s are demanding “real consequences,” such as a note on the student’s permanent record or University transcript. 

The R.A.s are pushing for more transparency from the administration, including the resumption of daily ResStaff updates and notices about positive cases in the residence halls within 24 hours. They also want the University’s COVID-19 dashboard to separate case data by building. 

The striking R.A.s are also demanding that they “should not be asked to interact with residents who have knowingly been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19.”

The University responded to GEO’s strike by noting that it is illegal for public employees to strike under state law. However, R.A.s are technically not University employees nor part of a recognized union, so their strike is unofficial. It is unclear what the legal mechanisms for forming a ResStaff union would be. 

In an email to The Daily Thursday morning, Amir Baghdadchi, senior associate director of Housing, said “Housing will continue to provide the regular operations of the residence halls, including programming, cleaning, and security, as well as programming to build community.”

“We have been in dialogue with our student staff, and have been taking steps to address concerns since late August,” Baghdadchi wrote. “For this most recent expression of concerns, Michigan Housing is committed to engaging with our resident student staff directly first.”

In an email to ResStaff sent Wednesday night, Rick Gibson, director of Michigan Housing, asked R.A.s to clarify if they were striking or not. The form sent to R.A.s asks respondents to “indicate that you are continuing to work or returning to work in your ResStaff role. This will help us assess scheduling and coverage needs for package rooms and lockouts/duty.”

Gibson also said students are an essential part of Michigan Housing staff.

“While we hold that trust and dialogue are better ways of accomplishing a common goal, we understand that some ResStaff may have felt that disruptive action is necessary,” Gibson wrote. “We assure you that this is not the case, and we are grateful for the recent ResStaff feedback that prompted us to provide new PPE to all communities, clarify our public health policies with residents, and improve communication with you.”

Gibson said ResStaff will be prioritized in the University's opt-in surveillance testing program. He also clarified that ResStaff will not be required to work with students who have tested positive or who were exposed to the virus. In addition to the masks in the COVID-19 kit received by all students, he said ResStaff would be provided additonal disposable face coverings.

However, Gibson said the University will not provide hazard pay to R.A.s, and that there are no plans to break down the cases dashboard by building. 

In regards to enforcement of social distancing guidelines, GIbson said “follow up measures may include housing contract termination.”

“At the same time, it is fundamental to our shared value of restorative justice not to impose automatic measures out of a “three strikes” rule or similar punitive system,” Gibson wrote. “Each person's situation dictates the outcome and next steps. Given the gravity of COVID-19, that means contract termination may be appropriate after one or two serious violations.”

According to their contract with the University, R.A.s who do not fulfill their duties could be subject to termination. When previously interacting with administration during the pandemic, many R.A.s feared retaliation for speaking out and only communicated with administration anonymously. 

Martino Harmon, vice president for the Division of Student Life, previously sent a written statement to R.A.s assuring them that there will be no retaliation for expressing health and safety concerns. However, it is unclear if this policy remains intact during a strike.

The day before move-in, University R.A.s drafted a letter to the University Housing leadership demanding increased health and safety protections, many of which were similar to the demands of their strike. They told The Daily they were inspired by R.A.s at Cornell University, who also sent a letter to their school’s administration and then planned a strike as students were about to move in.

The University R.A. letter resulted in two town halls with Student Life and University Housing administrators. Many R.A.s were frustrated as they felt their questions went unanswered, which their Tuesday press release said factored into their decision to go on strike.

“Our communication with upper-level Housing has slowed to a near halt, after two inefficient and ineffective town halls and the promise of a third which has not come,” the press release reads. “It is only by leveraging our power and our unity that we can make the dorms and this campus a safer place for students and staff.”

During move-in, many University safety precautions went unenforced, including mask requirements and a one-guest policy. Since move-in, residents in multiple dorms have contracted COVID-19. As of Tuesday night, 31 positive student cases have been reported within the past two weeks, according to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Before the announcement of the R.A. strike, LSA junior Alyssa Thomas, a Northwood Apartment R.A., told The Daily she supported the GEO strike because she felt R.A. concerns went unheard in front of the administration.

“As a ResStaff member, our interactions with the higher-ups at the University haven’t been so productive,” Thomas said. “I hope that this (GEO) strike is what really propels U of M to taking some action against the lack of action that’s been implemented for COVID-19.”

Daily Staff Reporters Francesca Duong and Dominick Sokotoff can be reached at fduong@umich.edu and sokotoff@michigandaily.com. Daily News Editor Claire Hao can be reached at cmhao@umich.edu.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.