After months of petitioning and rallying for increased safety measures against COVID-19 on campus, representatives from United Campus Workers (UCW) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) were able to meet with Chancellor Donde Plowman on Oct. 7.
According to representatives at the meeting, which was not closed-door and is on record, Plowman informed those present that a vaccine mandate for all UT employees would soon be announced.
The mandate is in compliance with a forthcoming executive order from the Biden administration and rules from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requiring employers with over 100 employees to mandate vaccination against COVID-19.
The imminent vaccine mandate for UT employees is reflective of the Biden administration’s increasingly aggressive attempt to override state power to slow the spread of COVID-19. The mandate will include student workers and will allow for medical and religious exemptions.
A detailed press release from UCW reported that other policy changes, including a raise to $15 an hour for Facilities Services workers and increased flexibility for instructors who wish to move classes online, would be announced soon as well.
Andrea Stedman, an academic advisor in the department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures, was one of four representatives present at the meeting with Plowman. The others included library faculty Donna Braquet, lecturer of Spanish and vice president of UCW Mia Romano and Buildings Services staff member Bryson Hill.
Stedman made clear that she and her fellow union members did not speak for the university, but rather were working to hold administration to account for the policy changes announced at the meeting.
“The fact that they say these things and that we have a timestamp of them because we put it out now, means that if they want to renege on that in the future, OK, but we know that you said this right now,” Stedman said. “It’s just about transparency and accountability.”
Before the meeting, a few demands made in the UCW and AAUP petition from late summer had already been met. The mask mandate was extended to all public indoor spaces the second week of classes and free N95 masks are available to the community at the Student Health Center.
Provost John Zomchick shared at the meeting that decisions over class modality would now be made by department heads rather than college deans, a move towards fulfilling the petition’s demand to allow instructors to teach remotely.
Plowman said at the meeting that the university will not be giving hazard pay to campus workers, nor would the university be able to extend the employee vaccine mandate to students in light of state law.
Stedman said the COVID-19 policy updates are a sign that the university is listening to the more than 850 UT workers who signed the petition earlier in the semester and who had concerns over how the pandemic was being handled this semester.
“It felt like just because vaccines were available, that means that COVID is over, even though we don’t have a vaccine requirement for students or staff currently,” Stedman said.
Bryson Hill, who represented Facilities Services at the meeting with administration, said that campus workers have concerns over the lack of enforcement or messaging on COVID-19 safety policies.
“There’s no enforcement of masking. I have seen signs ripped down about masking,” Hill said, “There are no COVID ‘safe checks’ every day. Rooms marked for advanced cleanings were sometimes not reported until after classes began.”
In Thursday’s meeting with union representatives, Plowman said that while safety is a top concern for the university, administration is also dedicated to restoring a sense of normalcy on campus.
“I promised an in-person experience and I am delivering on that,” Plowman said. “COVID is just something we have to live with.”
This article was updated to include additional information about the Biden administration's vaccine mandate rules.