Dora Guo

Being essential during a global health crisis 

As soon as Shayrhonda Wellons leaves to work in Trumbull College dining hall, she prepares for the moment that she will come home again.

 “I have two toddlers … With them I’m extra, extra, extra, extra cautious.”

Wellons does essential work during a global pandemic which necessitates some level of personal risk. To ensure the safety of herself and her family, she goes through her day making sure that she follows any and all precautions that will reduce the transmission of a deadly virus.

She describes her co-workers as a family who operate under this same mindset that they need to take the virus “really, really seriously.” On her eight-hour shift as an assistant chef, Wellons sanitizes tables and chairs, prepares meals and closes the dining hall for the night. “We’re on timers,” she said in an interview with the News. “Every 20 minutes washing hands. Every five to 10 minutes using hand sanitizer.” All dining hall staff also receive a COVID-19 test once a week.

When she gets home around 8 p.m., she takes off her shoes and work jacket before going inside. After washing her hands and showering, she feeds and bathes her two kids, aged 5 and 7. Then she helps them with their homework, reads them a story and puts them to bed. Her work never really ends.

“I’m always moving, I’m never resting. … I’m always thinking ahead,” she said.

However, this pace of life is not new to her. “I’ve been doing this whole COVID situation since mid-March,” she said. When Yale first closed to the majority of the student body in the spring, she was a part of the staff who worked to provide meals for the small percentage of students who stayed on campus. However, when the University confirmed that she was going to return to work in late August, she had to quickly figure out how to work her professional schedule around new demands the pandemic created within her home life.

“It was making sure that I was able to get a babysitter for my kids because they are not in school. … That was my biggest concern,” she said.

To help with her kids’ learning, Wellons works weekends so that she can stay home on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “On my days off, I’m front and center running from one computer to another computer, making sure they’re both on task,” she said. “Even when I’m at work I get FaceTime calls from my daughter to help her with something she can’t get through or the babysitter can’t get through.”

While Wellons said that being employed through the pandemic has “been a bit of a struggle,” she also feels that she is adjusting to a new way of living and working. She gives Yale a lot of credit for providing a safe work and living environment to their students and staff. “I feel like they took every precaution necessary.”

She went on to describe how being careful has become a new normal. “I wouldn’t say that [the virus] is dying down,” she said. “But everybody is getting more well adjusted to this situation. … Everybody is working it into their new lifestyle. … Everybody is making it work for them.”

Wellon’s story exemplifies the experience of a worker that Yale has deemed essential enough to maintain a full-time position. In an email to the News, University spokesperson Karen Peart said that the protection of Yale staff continues to be one of the University’s top priorities. She described the measures the University is taking to achieve this goal, including free voluntary testing for all employees and mandated weekly testing for staff who work closely with residential college students.

Individual departments within the University have also been upholding the University’s priority to keep staff safe. In a coordinated statement, Yale Hospitality detailed how they prepared for all possible courses the virus might take and aligned University policy with shifting health guidelines. Yale Hospitality Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications Christelle Ramos said that the University started preparing for an emergency years before the development of COVID-19: “Beginning in March, we commenced our emergency response protocols, as institutional plans had been established many years ago in the event of a pandemic.”

Daniel Flynn, director of asset renewal and planned projects for Yale Hospitality, also weighed in on the process of reopening amid great uncertainty. “There continue to be so many unknowns with COVID-19, and one of the main challenges was the ever-changing guidance from CDC,” he said. “We really spent hours and hours each day mapping out the different scenarios and solutions, so we were prepared to go in many different directions.” Flynn thanked colleagues from Yale Environmental Health and Safety, who advised his team through what he calls a “safe and successful reopening.”

The plans Yale has put in place to prevent students and staff from contracting COVID-19 has led to a widespread, albeit cautious, feeling that Yale has the spread of the virus under control. This feeling even exists among those who initially felt that a fall reopening was the wrong decision.

Jordanna Packtor — author of the popular op-ed “Yale, please close,” which ran in the News last month — reflected on her initial assessment that opening campus to the majority of the student body was a shortsighted move. “I feel slightly less worried,” she said in an interview with the News. “We have seen a couple of universities … where rigorous testing and frequent quarantine have kept the case count down. And that is very similar to what Yale has been doing.”

She said that she has “no stake in Yale failing” and that she “would love to be proven wrong.”

However, she also recognizes that the University has only had half of a semester to evaluate their policies. She warns that being overly confident that things won’t get worse from here is premature. “Winter is coming, people will be moving indoors,” she said. “I am optimistic right now, but I wouldn’t bet against 2020 getting worse again.”

When Yale decides their employees are nonessential 

While the University has shown that it takes its responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID-19 seriously, this is only a fraction of their response. Equally important is the protection of Yale staff’s livelihoods through a global crisis. In this responsibility, the University has fallen short, some say.

Peart wrote, “Yale refrained from taking any drastic cost-cutting actions that would result in furloughing employees, reducing their salaries, or reducing the university’s contributions to employee retirement plans.” However, some employees have fallen through the cracks of Yale’s policies.

This is the experience of Packtor and her co-worker Amber Suess. They both worked full time as library service assistants for the Sterling Memorial Library stacks shift and Bass renovation projects in March. When Yale first started adapting to the COVID-19 emergency, they deemed this work nonessential. As a result, both Suess and Packtor were laid off.

Packtor, who was eight months pregnant at the time, is happy her maternity leave and benefits worked out. Throughout the summer, she maintained hope that she would be able to return to her full-time position. “There’s just no possibility of that anymore. It’s completely gone,” she said. As a result of her layoff, Packtor will resume work in Yale’s interim employment pool, or IEP, when her maternity leave ends at the end of this month.

The IEP allows employees who have lost their jobs to work temporary positions while they search for another full-time position. While they are in the pool, employees get paid and maintain their health care benefits. Peart told the news that in addition to the IEP, Yale clerical and technical staff who have been laid off have access to the staffing and career development team and 18 months of priority in the hiring process.

Though the IEP provides many nonessential workers with a safety net, former full-time employees don’t get much choice over the temporary positions they will be assigned to. Packtor described most temporary positions offered in the IEP as “front-line service positions that aren’t available for remote work or flexible work.” Most of these positions are in person and related to health. “Ultimately you have to go where there is work available,” she said.

This has been the case for Suess. She has been navigating the IEP since May and has worked a temporary position at Yale Health. In an email to the News, she highlights gaps of University policy in providing adequate compensation to workers during the pandemic.

When Suess contracted a fever and called out of work, she had to self-isolate for a week, even after getting a negative COVID-19 test. She calls this a “good and reasonable policy,” but also worries that because she had to use a week of her designated paid sick leave during the isolation period, people won’t be honest when they have symptoms. “I had to do this twice while working at Yale Health, and now I only have six hours of sick time left,” she said. “I’m not sure what I will do if I get mildly sick again.”

Suess is not the only one who has gotten sick while working in a temporary health position. “I have coworkers right now who are working with the Yale Health plan and coming home with symptoms,” Packtor said.

Soon, sick leave won’t be a primary concern for Suess. Instead she will be facing a much more daunting reality — unemployment. An employee’s designated time in the IEP is limited and determined by how long they’ve worked for the University. As a result of the University’s hiring freeze, she has not had any luck finding a permanent position.

“Yale has been forcing departments to make huge sweeping budget cuts even when they’ve made huge amounts of money during this pandemic. They’ve instituted a hiring freeze, which has made it almost impossible for me to get another permanent job at Yale, which means I’ll be without a job and without health care at the end of this month.”

Suess and Packtors’ stories are not unique — the livelihoods of hundreds of former Yale employees rest in the hands of the administration. Throughout the pandemic, the University has not guaranteed that it will make an effort to protect all of their workers’ jobs and health care benefits. To combat this fact, Yale’s affiliated unions — UNITE HERE locals 33, 34 and 35 — have been working to protect the rights of their workers.

Packtor said that her union, Local 34 — which represents clerical and technical workers — is “pushing back against this idea that all these jobs have to go, that Yale is hurting for money in some way.” The union has focused on making sure Yale doesn’t cut employment or raise health care costs for employees.

Similarly, Local 33, which organizes graduate teaching assistants and research assistants at Yale, has outlined their demands on their website. Their demands criticize the way Yale has been protecting its endowment through the pandemic.

They write, “Yale’s austerity mindset over the past decade has disproportionately harmed scholars of color. We join calls to extend the contracts of contingent instructional faculty through the next academic year. We know Yale has the money — in fact, Yale’s $30 billion endowment has a history of targeting assets that are likely to be profitable in times of crisis, including distressed debt and home foreclosures.”

Local 33 is not only working to extend contracts, but is also making sure their members can access medical care through a global health crisis. They demand that Yale offer another year of full health coverage to uninsured graduate workers at no additional cost.

These demands come after the Office of the Provost outlined the initial implications of the pandemic on University finances in an April letter to the Yale community. The update included the announcement of a hiring freeze that would last until June 2021. University Provost Scott Strobel explained lost revenue as a result of transitioning to online learning and making Yale spaces available for medical personnel and first responders. Despite projected revenue declines, he maintained that the objective of the University was to support “existing faculty, students and staff.”

In a more recent update on the University’s finances, Yale reported a 6.8 percent investment return, leaving them with a $125 million surplus for the fiscal year. In an update to the Yale faculty and staff on the state of Yale’s finances, Strobel and Senior Vice President for Operations Jack Callahan ’80 said that financial returns were better than expected. In light of this fact, the update said that the University would institute a partial lift on the hiring freeze for faculty recruitment in the spring and gave a 1.5 percent salary raise to all full-time faculty and managerial and professional staff earning less than $85,000 per year.

While these updates are positive, there is a glaring hole in the University’s immediate financial plans for Yale’s service, maintenance, clerical and technical staff. The unions have mobilized through the pandemic to mitigate this gap.

In addition to putting pressure on the University to change their fiscal policy, they are also doing front-line work in sending out resources and information to their members. Wellons, who is a part of Local 35, the union of service and maintenance staff at Yale, said that they are “sending flyers home, sending letters home, posting stuff on our websites … They were great at getting the information out to everyone.”

An incomplete response to a global health crisis?

While the pandemic has been a logistical challenge for everyone, Yale has shown that they have the ability to expertly navigate shifting health guidelines. In an email sent to the Yale student body detailing plans for spring semester, President Salovey wrote, “We have been able to contain the spread of COVID-19 on our campus to date while preparing the next generation of thinkers and leaders.” The email added that there have been 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since nearly 9,000 students were welcomed back to campus a month ago.

Salovey’s email added, “Even with strong adherence to physical distancing and mask-wearing this semester, students are nonetheless sharing knowledge, connecting with one another, and conducting research.”

Wellons expressed a similar sentiment: “Even though it’s not the experience that they expected … I think Yale College students are adjusting very well.”

However, for the majority of Yale staff, the impact of the pandemic goes beyond the logistical gymnastics, the development of contingency plans or the pursuit of knowledge. Their lives and livelihoods are at stake each time the University announces a new policy.

On their website, Local 33 writes, “Yale must use its financial resources to support the university’s least secure employees and marginalized communities.” Packtor expressed that she doesn’t believe that this is Yale’s primary goal.

“I’ve been working at Yale for six years, and my mom has been working at Yale for years before that, and it’s one of those things [where] over the time I’ve felt a lot of frustration,” she said. “Their response to the pandemic demonstrated a larger underlying issue in the University that tends to be incredibly slow moving, incredibly top heavy and really focused on looking good instead of doing the right thing.”

Maya Weldon-Lagrimas | maya.weldon-lagrimas@yale.edu