‘I’m pretty disappointed’: UT Knoxville employees call for COVID-19 hazard pay and more protection at work

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Wear a mask, keep socially distant, and stay at home if sick. These reminders, along with changes to classrooms, dorms, and campus life at The University of Tennessee Knoxville are in place to keep students and employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some employees say it isn’t enough. 

When students were sent home in March due to rising COVID-19 cases, UT administrators say they got to work to establish plans to bring students back to campus, in-person, in the fall. Those plans evolved over 5 months culminating in the first day of the new semester Aug. 19.

‘The Rock’ on UT Knoxville’s campus, photo Aug. 19th

Messages change quickly on ‘The Rock’ at the center of UT Knoxville’s campus, but in the early hours of Wednesday morning, a message read: “Their blood on your hands admin.” The call for hazard pay, echoed in other messages left on ‘The Rock’ following this one.

With outlines for students where they live, work, eat, and congregate on campus, there are less concrete plans for the employees on campus.

Faculty were given the option to move their courses online entirely. There are contingency plans, according to Provost John Zomchick, if a faculty member needs to self-isolate or contracts COVID-19.

Within each academic department, there are fill-in professors in line for every class, ready to step in and teach.

“I’m pretty disappointed that we didn’t — when cases really started to climb in from June onward, hit pause and say, wait, we don’t want to have this half-and-half system where we try to come back and put everyone in chaos.”

Sarah Eldridge, Assc. Professor of German, UT Knoxville

One faculty member, a tenured Associate Professor of German, Sarah Eldridge, says what concerns her is what students are doing when they aren’t in the classroom.

“The chancellor could wear out every pair of shoes she has, but she’s not going to be able to watch over and police the behavior of every student on and off campus. I certainly don’t want to say that the students who throw parties who don’t follow the guidelines are not culpable. They are legal adults. On the other hand, they are behaving very consistently with group norms for their age group,” Eldridge said.

Eldridge, referring to UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman’s statement during a virtual update Tuesday, where she said she visited an off-campus house that was linked to a COVID-19 cluster and “knocked on the door” while students were asleep.

Eldridge moved her German classes online as a move for safety, she says, for herself but most importantly, her family.

After Chancellor Plowman announced a student could be expelled for not following the COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, Eldridge said she had new fears about inequality.

“I worry that wealthy students will be able to have their parents hire lawyers and get readmitted, whereas that burden of expulsion and potentially losing the chance for their degree will fall disproportionately on lower income, first-generation and underrepresented minority students. We know this pandemic is really exacerbating all kinds of inequality in American society as a whole, certainly in Knoxville as well,” Eldridge said.

Eldridge is also the Vice President of the United Campus Workers East Tennessee Chapter.

As for coronavirus testing, Eldridge said that’s another concern: UT employees aren’t eligible for the on-campus tests, right now. They’re only available to students.

The same goes with the university controlled self-isolation spaces on and off campus: Available to students, not employees.

Instead, faculty like Eldridge are asked to use community testing resources, which she said concerns her because of delays in results.

While she is able to teach her courses online, she said it’s not the case for every UT Knoxville employee.

“Human health and human suffering is more important than bringing students to campus…” said Tom Anderson, who works in Facilities Services at UT Knoxville.

Anderson is celebrating his 19th “work anniversary” at UTK, the same day students officially start classes. This “first day of school” looks different for him and his team. They’ve been working socially distant from each other since March and now wear masks at all times.

Anderson is also a member of the East Tennessee chapter of the United Campus Workers and says he’s been part of the greater Knoxville community as a leader in other organizations, too. He shares his concerns, not from a place of negativity he says, but because he loves UT.

Sharing more from his experience over the last two weeks during the move-in period, which was extended to last multiple days to keep students and their limited number of family members moving-in socially distant.

“I was scared for a lot of folks that had to be on campus in the dorms, because there were over 80 people in a tight space, all together, wearing masks. How do you regulate that?” said Anderson.

He said he knows multiple friends and coworkers that tested positive for COVID-19 in the last month. That, he says, is what he’s thinking about watching students come back to campus.

“In particular, our housing workers, our custodial workers, all our facilities, workers across campus, because they do not have the option of working from home and they’re not receiving any kind of hazard pay right now. There’s been no acknowledgement that they are undertaking extensive extra risk by doing their job, trying to keep students safe,” said Eldridge.

Like Anderson, Eldridge says she wishes UT administrators did more for campus employees who can’t work from home, like giving hazard pay.

What’s next? These employees are setting examples for the students, they say. By virtually working from home, or in Anderson’s case, wearing a mask at all times.

UT Knoxville response to concerns

In a statement, a University of Tennessee spokesperson said they are not commenting at this time.

Online resources provided through the UT Knoxville COVID-19 website outlines guides for employees when it comes to testing, screening, and contact tracing.

Employees should obtain testing from their local health department or health care provider. The Knox County Health Department has a map of COVID-19 testing sites in the area.

UT Knoxville COVID-19 Website

The university also links to programs for employees and more information about sick leave, online:

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