Dorm RAs threaten to strike over University of Utah’s handling of COVID-19 in campus housing

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A student staffer disinfects moving carts as students move into their dorm rooms at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.

(Update: The dorm employees have reached a settlement with the U., with the school agreeing to provide hazard pay for staff who test positive and give a daily a breakdown of cases.)

Resident advisers at the University of Utah want more sanitation supplies and to be told when someone in their dorm has the coronavirus. And if their demands cannot be met, they are threatening to strike.

The strong response from student leaders comes after they finished moving residents back onto campus this past weekend. The advisers say they were required to help students, but were given little protective equipment to do so — including no face shields when working in the center where all students had to get tested before getting their room keys. Many say there’s also been no effort to inform them when the results come back positive.

By the end of the day Monday, the school reported 16 cases in the dorms. Some of the RAs noted they only learned about the early results after reading a Salt Lake Tribune story Friday that confirmed the first three cases; and they haven’t been updated on where those individuals are assigned to live.

“I feel like we have to provide for our own safety,” one resident adviser said.

Another added: “We just want the U. to do what’s reasonable and responsible to help us. We’re not asking for a lot.”

The Tribune verified the status of both of the student-employees and agreed not to identify them. They fear being fired for speaking out. Their contracts specifically advise them not to talk to the media as a housing employee, according to a copy reviewed by The Tribune.

The resident advisers — along with the social justice advocates who also work in the dorms — are now calling on the U. to address their concerns. On Sunday, more than 100 of the staffers signed a letter to Barb Remsburg, the executive director for housing at the U., and Lori McDonald, the vice president for student affairs. They signed using only their initials or “XYZ” for those who were afraid to use their initials.

They created an anonymous Instagram page, @utah_ra_sja, to share some of their stories. A separate public petition they’ve started, as well, has also garnered more than 600 signatures in less than two days.

The demands are based on a similar petition from the dorm staff at Cornell University in New York where employees went on strike for two days until the school agreed to provide more protections.

The U. has not yet responded to the demands from its students.

In their letter, the school’s RAs ask to be tested again for COVID-19 because of concerns about being exposed during move-in — they each came in contact with hundreds of students, including unknown interactions with the 16 students who later got positive test results. And they want testing to be open for resident advisers on an ongoing basis, in addition to the testing available for symptomatic people on campus.

They’re requesting, too, to be given daily reports on the positive tests for residents, with names kept private, and be told when someone in their dorm has the virus. Those students are supposed to be placed in isolation rooms or move back home. And anyone who has been exposed should be quarantined. But the RAs say they have no way of enforcing that if they don’t know about it.

“We feel that the way we are currently being treated by administration is unacceptable and jeopardizing our safety,” the students wrote.

Additionally, they want extra sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment. They were only given a cloth mask for move-in.

The university has since been providing face shields and gloves, they said. The students still need disinfectant.

“No RA hasn’t been given any Clorox wipes, for instance,” one of the advisers told The Tribune. “But we’re supposed to check in on students and deliver their mail and so many other duties added this year. We feel overworked and under-supported.”

For the fall, they say, their workload as RAs has been multiplied. On top of their regular responsibilities to supervise their share of the 3,400 residents across campus, they’re also supposed to be enforcing the new rules for the pandemic: No parties. Routine self-checks for symptoms and self-reporting when diagnosed. Masks in all public places. No visitors.

One of the RAs said students on campus are already ignoring those mandates.

The RA staff contracts are for 20 hours of work each week. The advisers are given room and food. But they aren’t paid beyond that. In their letter to administrators, the advisers say they’ve been putting in more hours, especially with move-in. They want to either have a commitment that they won’t be given more than 20 hours of duties or be compensated fairly for extra requirements.

They’re also asking for hazard pay for any advisers who may test positive while working in the dorms this year, as well as a guarantee that they won’t be forced to move if campus shuts down again.

“We are putting our lives at stake,” one RA was quoted as saying on the Instagram page. “They cannot compensate that [with] free housing and meal plans. We deserve better.”

They have given the administrators a deadline of 5 p.m. Thursday to respond before they “take further action,” including a strike. “We hope it won’t come to that,” a resident adviser told The Tribune. “But we are prepared to begin what we’re calling disruptive practices.”

Chris Nelson, the spokesman for the U., confirmed Tuesday that housing administrators have not yet given the student leaders a formal response. But, he said, Remsburg did meet with the RAs in a virtual videoconference on Sunday to listen.

The students all entered the call using pseudonyms and with their cameras turned off to protect their identities. Nelson said they’re free to speak out, but he understands their worries. And Remsburg has agreed to host a chat with them weekly where they can continue to raise questions.

“We take all feedback seriously,” she said in a statement. “The safety of all of our team members is critical.”

The University of Utah, along with the other public and private colleges in the state, has decided to reopen for the semester with in-person options. But only about one-third of the universities nationwide are also opening their dorms, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The universities that did so earlier this month have already experienced outbreaks. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, returned to online instruction after 177 students tested positive, mainly linked to parties held at its on-campus housing. There have been smaller totals, so far, with colleges in Utah that started this week. Utah State University in Logan has had two cases in its dorm; Westminster College in Salt Lake City has had one.

Nelson said they tested students moving in to avoid spreading the disease. They’ve tried to isolate anyone with the virus who‘s come to live on campus and is the only one in the state doing so; they’ve also hired their own contract tracers. And he’s optimistic about the low case count, at 0.5% of the results.

Going forward, he added, the U. will be updating its website at coronavirus.utah.edu to include the total number of positive cases reported among students and staff.

But, he acknowledged, there won’t be a breakdown of how many of those cases are at the dorms. The RAs hope that changes. Without it, they say, they don’t feel like they can do their jobs.