March 5, 2010

Staff Lament Policy for Snowstorm

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Although University officials followed the stipulations in Article 24 of its contract with the workers’ union, Cornell’s dining and cleaning staff members are criticizing the University for the treatment of its employees in the wake of last Friday’s blizzard and said that they were as one Dickson custodian said — “treated very unfairly.”

In accordance with this contract, signed last year, employees unable to make it to work due to “inclement weather” are forced to expend accrued vacation time or sick hours to compensate for the missed time.

But employees and management assumed diverging views of this policy — though none involved accused the University of acting illegally or in bad faith.

“It’s incredibly unreasonable [that I] am expected to [come to work in this weather],” said Nancy Paul, a custodian at Cornell for over 11 years, adding that her back problems and disabilities only exacerbated matters. She said that she stayed home because “a day’s wages [weren’t worth] risking” her health and well-being.

Robin cited how the Department had urged no travel “unless absolutely necessary,” and said that her car insurance would therefore not have covered her in the event of an accident.

The University, however, stressed that their inclement weather policy — and their worker policies in general — were “very generous,” and that they took great lengths to ensure workers’ safety, according to Vice President of Human Resources Mary Opperman.

Opperman said that it wasn’t particularly onerous or unreasonable to ask workers to use vacation time for a day off, and that the workers were in no way harassed or bullied.

She added that the University had made great lengths to ensure “that employees with long commutes had their schedules worked out long beforehand.” The University also postponed the start of the day till 9:30 a.m. to allow workers more time to arrive, Opperman said.

As for the workers’ safety concerns, Opperman said that Human Resources has held meetings with the purpose of showing “that [for us] their safety comes first.”

United Auto Workers Local 2300, the union of Cornell’s service employees, said that they hadn’t been receiving open complaints from the workers, but sympathized with their frustrations.

“It’s upsetting,” said Local 2300’s Administrative Assistant Carl Feuer, “but there’s nothing we can do about it … until 2012,” when the workers’ current contract expires.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t start building our case now,” Feuer added.

Feuer said that the workers “recognize [that it is a] very difficult time for the University.”

Some staff members, however, expressed discontent over the incident.

“The University didn’t close [the school] because then we would have had to get paid,” speculated another custodian on North Campus.

Opperman emphasized that it was essential that the school remain open.

“We can’t really close the University when we have thousands of people here,” she said. “It’s a difficult balance … we did the best we could.”

Others saw the event as evidence of inequitable treatment of the University’s staff.

“The teachers don’t lose anything [for not coming in],” said custodian Kathy Parlin.

Not all employees had a bone to pick with the University. One cafeteria worker took a less sympathetic view of the workers’ complaints: “You get a lot of whine asses at Cornell,” said the staffer, who requested anonymity. “They got sick and vacation days, so they use them. That’s what they’re there for.”

Yet the prevailing sentiment of the snowstorm was that the workers had been slighted.

“It’s bad [policy] … and it’s not right,” said C.C. Smiler, a cafeteria worker and union representative at Appel Commons. “[One] should be allowed to stay at home and not be penalized if they otherwise would have been there.”

His co-worker at Appel Eric Hunter agreed, saying he had waited for hours for a bus that never came. “The half of the staff that lives far away should not be penalized,” Hunter said.

Despite the discontent, the policy is unlikely to change soon. A cafeteria worker on North Campus, requesting anonymity, said that this policy has existed in snowy Ithaca throughout her 20 year tenure here.

For the workers located close enough to make it in, the day was a nice surprise — they were rewarded 1.5 times their usual pay for making it in. The trouble is, as Feuer suggested, it becomes more difficult for workers to come in if their wages can’t keep up with rising Ithaca property rates.

Original Author: Jeff Stein