UM misrepresents working conditions in ‘We Are One U’ Covid-19 safety module

One of the stock videos featured in the Covid-19 module that highlights the disinfection process on campus. Photo credit: iStock
One of the stock videos featured in the covid-19 module that highlights the disinfection process on campus
One of the stock videos featured in the Covid-19 module that highlights the disinfection process on campus. Photo credit: iStock

As part of the University of Miami’s efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19, the administration created a new Covid-19 module for students to complete prior to returning to campus. The video included testimonials from student leaders and administrators showcasing the disinfection procedures and public health guidelines that will be implemented on campus to guarantee a safe semester on campus.

However, UM’s Employee Student Alliance alleges the majority of the footage used to highlight the disinfection process on campus was stock footage, which the organization says is not representative of what is currently happening on campus.

“In the video titled ‘4 Pillars: Cleaning and Disinfecting,’ the University of Miami used a mixture of both footage filmed on campus and stock footage the university paid for,” Esteban Wood, a member of UMESA, told The Miami Hurricane. “We believe the university is wrong to deceive its students, faculty and staff.” UMESA is an unofficial campus organization of students and workers to fight on behalf of workers at UM.

The cleaning and disinfecting portion of the module includes an 8-second video of an individual wearing a hazmat suit disinfecting a table and a 4-second clip of a man wiping the floor. Both of those clips UMESA says were stock videos found on Shutterstock and iStock.

Wood says the module is not reflective of the fact that part-time ABM workers are not receiving the proper personal protective equipment to disinfect the buildings and classrooms on campus.

“Janitors and other subcontracted workers on campus are being asked to fumigate classrooms and other public spaces with harsh chemicals without having full personal protective equipment for their face and bodies,” Wood said. “These subcontracted workers are asked to perform fumigation after 10 p.m., after curfew, when no one will see them.”

According to one worker who asked to remain anonymous, masks are not being provided and the black one they received over the summer does not protect them.

“The black one is the only one we have and no one uses it because it doesn’t work,” the anonymous worker said in Spanish. “Here there is no protection. The company only cares about increasing its profits and not the safety of the workers.”

Another worker who also requested anonymity said he was forced to self-quarantine after possible exposure to Covid-19. He was not paid during his week off in quarantine.

“If I am helping this company clean if I am on the frontline every day for the company, then when the company treats me this way it is not just,” said the anonymous worker in Spanish. “Most of us can’t survive if the company decides to not pay us for a week.”

Given the worker’s complaints about their protective equipment, Wood said he was skeptical about the university’s module showing the workers disinfecting in hazmat suits. After seeing this, he reviewed the video from the module and figured out it was from stock footage.

“How can the flour pillars for reopening, that include cleaning and disinfecting and public health precautions, be effective without including the about 650 subcontracted workers at UM?” challenged Fernandez.

Since the onset of the pandemic, workers and janitorial staff have been asking for better protection. Back in July, subcontracted workers taped a petition with a list of demands on President Julio Frenk’s office door. They demanded additional paid time off for any covid-related issues, hazard pay for elevated risk, masks and personal protective equipment, inclusion in the university’s contact tracing plan and a meeting between President Frenk, UMESA and the workers.

The university responded, offering 5 to 10 days of covid-related paid leave at the company’s minimum wage. Yet, UMESA member Mars Fernandez alleges the workers are still not receiving the proper protections when fumigating classrooms.

“Through this entire time, workers were given one surgical mask per week, then a see-through jersey mask and field shield,” said Fernandez. “Now they are fumigating and they are still bringing their own supplies from home when they need better protections.”

ABM issued the following statement to The Miami Hurricane regarding workers’ the allegations: “We have been and will continue to ensure that our team members are informed, properly trained and provided the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and supplies needed, based on guidance from OSHA, the CDC and our Advisory Council, to stay safe while performing their work. The cleaning requirements, PPE and supplies may vary based on the task and/or level of service being provided.”

However, the workers say the company has not adequately communicated how they should be working during the pandemic and how they avoid possible exposure to the virus.

“In many of the buildings, there are people in quarantine… they have not explained to us how we should operate in these areas, how we can work every day inside of these buildings where people are quarantining and isolating,” said an anonymous worker in Spanish. “Without this instruction and communication, it shows a lack of respect for us, the workers and for the work that we do for the university.

Now, 32BJ SEIU, the union who represents the ABM workers on campus, is working with management to resolve many of the workers’ grievances, including additional PPE and improving the communication between ABM and the workers.

“…Some janitors have expressed concerns that they have not been receiving a fresh mask every day and some janitors who fumigate are requesting additional gear,” said senior communications associate for 32BJ SEIU Ana Tinsley. “In addition, janitors who clean the common hallways on floors that house quarantined (and confined) students are requesting better PPE… Most importantly, during this time of crisis where communication between labor and management is so crucial, they have agreed to meet weekly with the members to resolve any further issues.”

Anna Timmons contributed to the reporting for this story