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Grad Union Meets with Harvard to Discuss Covid-19 Health and Safety Concerns

Massachusetts Hall, an administrative building, is located in Harvard Yard.
Massachusetts Hall, an administrative building, is located in Harvard Yard. By Megan M. Ross
By Cara J. Chang and Meimei Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard’s graduate student union met with University administrators last Tuesday to discuss concerns over health and safety, including access to mental health and specialist care, Covid-19 contact tracing, and protections for student workers working remotely.

Per Article 10 of its contract, Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers and the University meet to discuss health and safety at least twice each contract year. Wednesday’s meeting between HGSU-UAW and Harvard representatives from the Office of Labor and Employee Relations, Harvard University Health Services, and Environmental Health and Safety occurred just days after the union filed an intent to bargain for its second contract.

“It was very obvious to us that health and safety was a key concern for people, and we couldn’t wait till the contract fight to start bringing some demands up to the University,” HGSU-UAW President Brandon J. Mancilla said. “I think it was a time for them to sit with us and meet us and actually hear directly from us.”

According to Mancilla, the union began scheduling the health and safety meeting in December and surveying members in preparation. From those survey results, the union presented four central topics for discussion: mental health, specialist care, Covid-19 contact tracing, and protections for student workers while they are working remotely.

HGSU-UAW Grievance Officer Andrew N. “Drew” Dates said many union members reported long wait times for initial mental health screening appointments in the last year. Students living outside of Cambridge are also uncertain about how to access mental health care through Harvard, he said.

“The goal is really to make sure that all members of the community at Harvard are unified in their expectations, needs, and goals for University-provided mental health care,” Dates said. “We see this as a step forward, working together with the University, but also to make sure that things like this don’t happen again.”

According to Dates, the union and the University have discussed a potential “mental health bill of rights,” which Mancilla said is inspired by the Vanderbilt University’s Mental Health Bill of Rights for its graduate students.

The union also brought up concerns over the lack of access to specialist care during the pandemic, according to Dates. He cited diabetic students and others seeing endocrinologists experiencing delays as appointments transitioned to telemedicine.

Dates said HGSU-UAW has requested that the HUHS website reflect recent changes to the services it provides, especially for students not living in Massachusetts.

Besides health care services, Mancilla said the union is also concerned about the University’s contract tracing program.

“They’re following the state policy on informing the person who got tested positive and those who had close contact with them, but beyond that they were not doing anything,” Mancilla said. “One of our issues with that is that’s not how Covid works.”

Harvard, Dates said, has no mandate in place to tell graduate students if anyone in their building or on their floor at work tests positive for Covid because those distances do not constitute “close contact” — being within 6 feet of someone for at least 15 minutes — as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you’re working 6 feet apart all day, that is longer than 15 minutes,” Dates said, specifically pointing to union members who work in labs. “That is a close contact. This is something that the University has really not controlled.”

Although Mancilla acknowledged privacy concerns stemming from more rigorous contact tracing, he said students are taking risks when they go to work in-person and should have more information.

For graduate student workers operating partially or fully from home, HGSU-UAW is also calling for the University to make the home a workplace to expand student workers’ access to necessary resources and injury-related compensation, according to Dates.

“The most important thing that we find critical right now to the success of every single student worker is that the home is officially considered by the University as a workplace,” he said. “We have won many rights about what student workers are owed by the University in their workplaces.”

Article 15 of the contract says the University will provide HGSU-UAW members with the materials necessary to complete their jobs. Article 10, concerning health and safety, allows HGSU-UAW members to file for workers’ compensation if they are injured at work. Defining the home as a workplace would give members access to both of these provisions as they work from home, Dates said, offering examples such as adequate internet access and compensation for spinal issues from non-ergonomic work stations.

According to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton, Harvard is reviewing a summary of the information provided by the union and will take the concerns into consideration.

Now that the union has begun an official conversation with the University over its concerns and demands, Mancilla said next steps are drafting policy proposals ahead of a second meeting union officials anticipate later this spring.

“We’re encouraged at the end of this meeting that the rigorous and thorough feedback we’ve now given Harvard will be taken into account moving forward and that a lot of these issues can and will be solved if we can work together on this,” Dates said.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meimeixu7.

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