Staff brace for an uncertain on-campus fall semester

By Jake Gaughan

 

Some dining workers, many of whom interact closely with students, are skeptical that students will adhere to health and safety requirements. (Benjy Renton)

Looking ahead to August and the return of students to Middlebury, staff members are imagining what work might look like on a campus once again populated by students.

Since students vacated campus in March, staff concerns related to employment and compensation have loomed large. A week after students left campus, the college committed to full wage continuity and no layoffs through June 30, a pledge administrators have since tentatively extended to next July in their new 2021 budget. Many staff members have mostly remained at home throughout the pandemic, with others coming in on staggered work schedules. 

 Now, midway through the summer, wages, workplace safety and community health are all concerns on the minds of staff as the college releases plans for a largely on campus fall semester

A new budget for a new normal

A staff Town Hall on June 25 sought to answer some of these unknowns. 

During the meeting, Treasurer David Provost announced Middlebury’s then-proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, including full compensation for all staff for the duration of the year. The college will begin campus-wide wage and hiring freezes as it seeks to stop the bleeding from an expected $18.5 million shortfall in the upcoming year, according to Provost.

The new policies received mixed reactions — some staff expressed understanding of the college’s financial position, while others saw the freezes as a continuation of inadequacies of fair staff pay

One academic support staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, was less understanding of the measures. 

The cost of living isn’t going down in Vermont, so not getting at least the minimum cost of living increase is like taking another pay cut,” they said. The staff member also expressed frustrations with the new hiring freeze, arguing that, “there is no job equity, and employees [who are] being asked — requested, really — to take on additional work for the same pay are essentially receiving another pay cut.”

With the hiring freeze, the employee fears that any additional position that is vacated will not be filled, but that the work required of that position will simply be distributed among current employees.

But landscaping worker Todd Weedman acknowledged the economic realities of the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on the college. “From [Provost’s] perspective, I can understand that,” he said. “Unemployment is as high as it’s ever been. I’m surprised that there weren’t pay cuts.”

In the staff Town Hall, Provost has made it clear that the current budget is based on estimations of student enrollment and the college’s ability to carry out a full semester on campus. Deviation from those assumptions may lead to some hard decisions. 

“I feel grateful the administration has guaranteed us our full wages for the year,” said Katie Gillespie, associate director for research compliance, who is also a representative on the Staff Council. “But I know that’s contingent on enrollment and the tuition that we get. If we are short from the projections that are made, then we would look into less desirable options.” In the June 25 Town Hall, Provost said the college would revisit staff wages in October even with the 2021 budget. In the same meeting, President Laurie Patton elaborated that if the college found that the current budget was unsustainable, they would need to consider cutting benefits and moving toward fractional pay. 

Although the college set up the Covid-19 pay bank to support staff members throughout the pandemic, many staff who cannot work remotely still needed to use their own combined time off (CTO) to cover their days stuck at home. College Horticulturist and Staff Council President Tim Parsons sees this as a more glaring issue among the other small details of the new budget. “A lot of staff have hardly any vacation time saved up now,” Parsons said. “People aren’t really asking for hazard pay, but they do want their vacation back.”

Furthermore, depleted CTO could prevent many from having time off in the event of another emergency cancellation of in-person classes later in the year or even with the current plan for a shortened semester.

 “Even though the administration has committed to keeping wages and benefits whole for now, [dining staff] are worried about all the CTO they are using up,” said one longtime dining worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution. “[Dining staff] won’t be able to accrue enough [CTO] to keep up with the shutdown time if we have an end date for feeding most students by the week of Thanksgiving.”

Safety on campus

As staff members begin to return to campus throughout July, questions of workplace safety are at the forefront of many minds. Some departments are still working through how to operate in a socially distant manner  — a process that’s far from one-size-fits-all. 

While a handful of departments, such as landscaping and parts of facilities repair, have less interaction with students and are thus less at risk, others, such as dining or custodial staff, deal with students in close quarters every day. Some staff are more confident than others in the decision to begin the phased return to work. 

“I don’t think we would be going back unless it was safe for us to do so,” said Parsons when asked about the staff’s return to work. “We don’t have all of the answers right now, but I have faith that we will.” 

Gillespie has mixed feelings.

“It’s tough, and there’s really no good option,” she said. “Middlebury was very deliberate in explaining the decisions they were making, which was good. Whether or not we can do it remains to be seen. I’m nervous yet still cautiously optimistic.”

The anonymous academic support worker was less optimistic. “I know that Middlebury plans to take every precaution it can to keep the college community safe, but I feel the risk of a Covid breakout on campus this fall is much higher than an outbreak was in the spring,” the staff member said. “Students will be returning from all over the United States and possibly abroad, where many have been exposed to Covid-19 and may be bringing it with them without even knowing.” 

“Middlebury raced to send students home in the spring claiming that we did not have the capacity to handle an outbreak in our community,” the worker added. “I don’t believe much has changed in that regard since.”

Like many of its peers, the college has used the spring and the summer to explore different safety options. For example, some departments — like dining — used the post-departure period of the spring semester, during which about 70 students remained on campus, as a testing phase for new cleanliness and safety measures. 

The anonymous dining worker was confident that a safe workplace is possible “as long as everyone follows the rules.” It remains to be seen how diligently students will adhere to safety requirements, though many experts question college students’ abilities to do so

Many of the policies implemented for dining are simply strengthened versions of practices already in place before the Covid-19 pandemic, and some staff think that the college has failed to address the crux of the issue — in-person interactions. 

“In dining, we are required to keep everything sanitized anyway, so we just have to be even more vigilant about it,” the worker said. “It is something we take seriously… It is interacting with students that may make it difficult.”

Students’ return

The largest change to life in Middlebury since March will be the return of hundreds and thousands of students to campus in the fall. This mass arrival presents its own unique logistical and epidemiological challenges given the college’s rural setting. Still, some staff members expressed optimism about returning students’ ability to bring back a liveliness to campus that’s been lacking since March. 

“We’re so anxious and excited for students to come back,” Weedman said. “The campus feels so strange being so empty.”

Others expressed more cautious views but nonetheless recognized the communal value of working to craft an in-person fall. 

“With a small community, there’s always a big question of how an outbreak here affects community health resources,” Gillespie said. “But I think if we all have a community mindset, we can return to campus responsibly and safely.”

Still, some staff were less confident in students’ abilities to be responsible. Weedman stressed the importance of students buying into safe practices.

“A lot of it is going to hang on [students],” he said. “A lot of people are coming in from out of state, so it might be kind of tough.”

“I think that after a few weeks it will get harder and harder to get students to adhere to all of the rules,” said the anonymous dining worker. “You’ll then see staff starting to get upset, as they will feel exposed and then have to go home every night to the rest of their family.”

Jarrod Head, a cook in Proctor, is concerned about the propensity for nightlife on campus to spread the virus but sees students’ return to campus as an opportunity for maturation. 

“We should all be humble and remember that we are here for a safer future and to go back into the world,” he said. The return represents a chance to grow up, he continued. “We all become adults and at some point realize that we are part of something bigger.”