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Harvard’s Graduate Student Union Files Complaint Over Spring Covid Policies

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Harvard’s graduate student union presented University leaders with a list of grievances about the school's updated spring Covid-19 protocols last week, calling for free high-quality masks and expanded testing.

In a letter to administrators last Wednesday, Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers raised concerns that the University’s Covid-19 regulations for student workers will not adequately slow the spread of the Omicron variant. The union also met with University leaders Wednesday, with members offering testimonials.

HGSU-UAW called for increased social distancing in indoor spaces, waivers for mental health costs, undergraduate isolation housing, contract tracing, and improved Covid-19 guidance and accommodations. It also requested booster vaccine access for student workers’ families and HEPA filters in workspaces.

More than 350 HGSU members had signed onto the list of demands as of Wednesday evening, one week after its release. The University has five business days to respond to the complaint, per the union’s contract.

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University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the letter. He confirmed Harvard will address the grievance in accordance with the contract.

The union previously presented the Covid concerns to the University in the first week of January. HGSU-UAW sent informal complaints to Harvard’s Office of Labor and Employee Relations that outlined preliminary concerns and warned of a possible grievance letter, according to former union president Brandon J. Mancilla.

Mancilla said Wednesday that the union always tries to “alert” the University of its concerns, but sending a grievance letter “adds formality and legality to the equation.”

Undergraduate members of the Student Labor Action Movement signed in support of the HGSU’s requests to the University.

“The union-wide grievance filed by HGSU-UAW is very straightforward and — to us at SLAM — not radical at all,” Prince A. Williams ’25 said.

Mancilla said the union’s safety concerns extend beyond the workplace into Cambridge and undergraduate life.

“We’re not just looking out for ourselves, but we’re looking out for the rest of the community and particularly undergrad students,” Mancilla said.

He added that the union does not plan to disrupt operations with a strike or shutdown in order to secure a University response.

“At the moment, we’re just asking for the flexibility and options to be able to teach safely,” he said.

The grievance letter called on the University to approve all worker requests for isolation after potential exposure. It also pushed for the reinstatement of contract tracing, which the University provided during the fall but scaled back earlier this month ahead of the spring semester.

“Contact tracing is an ‘enduringly important public health tool’ that provides vital protection against the spread of COVID-19,” it reads.

The union also petitioned for heated outdoor dining areas and easily-accessible masks.

“It’s still going to be cold for at least another three months,” Mancilla said. “We should have outdoor heated areas so that we’re not all mask-off eating indoors.”

Mancilla also said that the costs of masks should be covered by the University, rather than left to its student workers. The union’s letter requested two free high-grade masks per week for each employee and urged for consistent masking protocols across Harvard’s schools.

“If every custodian had to buy all their mops, that’s ridiculous,” Mancilla said. “Masks should be seen the same way as those other tools are — as safety gear.”

Harvard’s surveillance testing program currently includes student workers, but is not available to other members of their households. The letter noted that some other peer institutions — such as Northeastern University, Syracuse University, and the University of Illinois — have already expanded their Covid-19 testing programs to include family members of workers.

“Harvard has a remarkable testing infrastructure, which could accommodate these additional people and further ensure that we have as safe and healthy a campus as possible for the community, as a whole,” the letter states.

HGSU-UAW called on the University to act on its demands immediately.

“We believe that once implemented, these requests will live up to Harvard’s commitment to a safe work environment and allow the Spring plans to continue with less disruption and risk for everyone,” the letter reads.

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