Rutgers unions call for library closures due to coronavirus

<p>Rutgers libraries are scheduled to remain open for limited hours while students take remote classes.&nbsp;</p>

Rutgers libraries are scheduled to remain open for limited hours while students take remote classes. 

The Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) and Union of Rutgers Administrators - American Federation of Teachers (URA-AFT) have asked the University to close all libraries to protect the health of library staff during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. 

Both the American Library Association and the Association of College and Research Libraries also called for the closure of all libraries due to the outbreak, according to press releases.

Todd Wolfson, president of the AAUP-AFT, and Christine O’Connell, president of the URA-AFT, sent a letter on March 17 to Senior Vice President for Human Resources and Organizational Effectiveness Vivian Fernandez voicing the unions’ concerns. 

“Unless employees are providing absolutely essential services — services critical to ensuring the health, welfare and safety of others — requiring our members to physically report to work, places them and others at risk and is contrary to the unprecedented global efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wolfson and O’Connell said, according to the letter. 

Wolfson and O’Connell said the limited access to testing, the inability to enforce quarantines, the absence of an official treatment or vaccine as well as the threat of New Jersey hospitals becoming overloaded with cases means library employees who become infected may not have access to healthcare, putting them at risk, according to the letter.

They also said the University is unable to screen both library employees as well as those visiting the library to use the facilities to determine if these individuals are infected, according to the letter. 

Previous union negotiations mandate that members cannot be required to work under conditions that pose a threat to their health and safety, Wolfson and O’Connell said, according to the letter. They also cited the New Jersey Public Employees' Occupational Safety and Health Act, which states public employers must provide employees with a workplace “free from recognized hazards which may cause serious injury, physical harm or death.”

If the University does not shut down nonessential facilities, such as libraries, and an employee contracts a fatal case of COVID-19 due to the facilities remaining open, the University could be liable for their death, Wolfson and O’Connell said, according to the letter. 

The two union presidents said because librarian employees provide nonessential services, they should exclusively be working from home, according to the letter. 

University spokesperson Dory Devlin said keeping the libraries open is important to comply with Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D-N.J.) Executive Order 104, which requires colleges in the state to suspend in-person instruction and move to an online format due to COVID-19. 

“The University libraries, located across all campuses and throughout the state, provide access to the internet through nearly 1,000 computer terminals. Access to the internet through these computers is essential for students who for economic or other reasons do not have access to the internet in their homes,” Devlin said.

The Daily Targum previously reported most Rutgers students had to move off-campus due to COVID-19, with exceptions for international students, those in University family housing or a select number of individuals with special permission.

Wolfson and O’Connell said there are other options for providing students with computers, according to the letter. 

“Access to research materials is available online. Librarians can be available remotely to assist students and faculty with their research needs,” they said, according to the letter. “If students need access to computers, there are better and safer alternatives than keeping the libraries open.”

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Salvador Mena sent a University-wide email on March 19 asking students to contact the Dean of Students' office if they do not have the technology at home to work remotely.

Devlin said library employees have received guidance on telecommuting and use of leave time to address any personal or familial health concerns.

“Like all functions at the University ... there is an expectation that operations will continue while employees avail themselves of these work flexibility options,” she said.

A library employee who did not want to be named said although employees received information about working from home, some do not have the tools they need to do so. The employee said staff members are having difficulty borrowing laptops or other devices from the University.

The employee said working from home is not an option for all library employees.

"I know that some of the librarians, or staff at libraries, still have to go in because they have to be at the circulation desk and so on, and people are very upset about that," the employee said. 

Devlin said the University is taking steps to reduce large groups of people from using the libraries, such as closing them to the general public and instructing security guards to break up groups of more than 50 people. She said the libraries are big enough for more than 50 people to work separately. 

The Office of Institutional Planning and Operation has also implemented a full-time library cleaning staff to maintain hygiene, Devlin said. 

The Targum reported that Rutgers facilities will remain open for reduced hours for the students remaining on campus while the University operates under remote instruction. 

“Rutgers did shorten the hours of the (libraries), but we do not think this is enough. The libraries should be shut altogether. They are not essential services, and in a crisis you shut everything but essential services,” Wolfson said in an email.

Devlin said University Librarian Krisellen Maloney has been asked to develop a plan to reduce the number of employees and limit the number of locations open to students. 

“In the coming weeks we will assess the number of students and faculty who are physically present in the libraries and may choose to further restrict access or availability,” she said.

Rebecca Givan, vice president of the AAUP-AFT, said closing the libraries is a matter of public safety, according to a press release.

"We have been arguing with Rutgers management for days about closing the libraries, but can no longer wait. This is reckless endangerment of our members, staff, students and the wider public,” Givan said, according to the release. “We have the legal and contractual right to demand that Rutgers safeguard people's health and lives above all else, and that is what we must do.”

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