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Editorial: UCLA’s essential workers must be prioritized with protective measures

By Editorial Board

May 4, 2020 8:38 p.m.

COVID-19 has exposed the nationwide flaws in a system lacking worker protection, from weak unemployment provisions to dismal health care services.

Closer to home, UCLA isn’t doing much more than the bare minimum – especially when it comes to protecting its essential workers.

After a UCLA Facilities Management employee the died of COVID-19, the Teamsters Local 2010 union, which represents employees working in higher education institutions, reiterated their demand that the state and employers provide more paid sick leave and personal protective equipment to essential workers. A Teamsters Local 2010 representative also claimed that UCLA Health has not been consistently providing PPE or mask-fitting tests.

But instead of addressing the problem during what is coming up on two months of lockdown, the university is busy requiring daily symptom surveys and sending out vaguely reassuring emails.

UCLA has a crisis on its hands but so do the employees who keep the ship running. As a bastion of research and progress, the university must provide its essential employees with consistent PPE, mask-fittings and hazard pay as suggested by Teamsters Local 2010 and employees across the country. Paid sick leave policies and symptom monitoring are a good start, but UCLA has a long way to go until its employees are given the provisions or pay they deserve given the risk factors.

And until it does, the university is distracting itself from the underlying problem.

On March 16, University of California President Janet Napolitano issued an executive order stipulating that 128 hours – over two weeks – of paid sick leave would be granted to all employees who were experiencing symptoms or knew someone who was experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Although it’s not ideal, the sick leave policy itself is rather generous compared to other institutions’. But if UCLA’s employees can’t access proper protective equipment, sick leave will only provide a respite when the inevitable occurs.

A commitment to the health of essential workers is perhaps the single most important moral imperative right now, and it’s one that would serve UCLA in the coming months as well.

Currently, the CDC does not know the period of infectiousness for COVID-19. But with an incubation period of up to 14 days, it seems overwhelmingly safe to say that those employees left unprotected by the university will have an astronomically higher risk of exposure.

Put simply, the university must commit to providing its workers with the basic necessities to get this job done. Unions, students and petitions have let them know what they need to do – now they need to make it happen.

Of course, fighting this pandemic is no easy task – and UCLA is going to have to make some unpopular calls in the coming months. But failing to provide protections for its essential workers can’t be one of them. Implementing symptom screening surveys is great, but when employees don’t have protection once they actually get to work, UCLA’s only addressed a fraction of the problem.

Now, they need to address the rest of it.

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