November 18, 2020
Kowal gives SUNY trustees grim picture of fall semester
uupdate 11-18-20

With the incoming Biden administration giving hope of desperately needed change for the country as the coronavirus rages harder than ever before, UUP members find themselves at a difficult crossroads.

That’s the picture that UUP President Fred Kowal drew for the SUNY Board of Trustees during a Nov. 17 public hearing that provided University’s policymakers with a snapshot of the difficult situations that students, faculty and staff have confronted during a fall semester riddled with economic and academic uncertainty.

Kowal used his brief remarks at the hearing to lay out an unvarnished description of the sacrifices that UUP members have made, as well as the desperate need for a new federal relief package and new sources of state revenue for SUNY.

“The going has been extremely challenging, but dedicated, hard-working UUP members have delivered the top-notch educational experience our students expect and deserve from SUNY—in person and remotely,” Kowal told trustees. “Let us remember as well that UUP members stood on the front lines this spring.

“Downstate was declared to be a COVID-only hospital,” he continued. “Stony Brook University Hospital was not a COVID-only hospital but may have had even more cases than Downstate. UUPers protected the rest of us in New York state from this deadly disease, but in doing so we lost union members.”

Seeking federal, state relief

UUP has spent months advocating for passage of the CARES Act, the federal relief package passed by the House of Representatives in May, but which never moved through the Senate. The union has also been the leading voice in New York for new sources of revenue for the cash-strapped state budget, with a repeal of the Stock Transfer Tax rebate tops on UUP’s list.

Not only would adequate state funding prevent retrenchments and other severe cutbacks at SUNY— which the governor has so far managed to stave off— it would also help provide hazard pay for the front-line UUP members at SUNY’s three academic medical centers. A number of private and public hospitals in the state have provided hazard pay to their employees, in recognition of the extreme risks these medical workers faced in treating COVID-19 patients.

Hazard pay still an issue

Hospital staff have indeed paid a tragic toll. An unknown number of UUP members working at the academic medical centers have contracted the coronavirus; at least one physician died of COVID-19 last spring, at University Hospital at SUNY Downstate; and despite precautions, some medical staff at Stony Brook University Hospital carried the virus home to their families last spring, with some family members sickening and dying of COVID-19.

And, as Kowal pointed out to trustees, it is not just medical staff that face terrible risks. Residence hall staff at several campuses will be supervising students who cannot immediately go home with the semester’s end at Thanksgiving, either because those students are in isolation following a positive test for COVID-19, or because they do not have a home setting they can return to for the break.

“It is unconscionable that at these times of sacrifice by so many, the state does not provide hazard pay,” Kowal told the trustees. “Why can’t this state find the resources to pay these heroes what they deserve? We have been advocating at the federal level for months. UUP is now advocating even harder at the state level. Our demands are simple: Pandemic profiteers must pay their fair share. It’s long overdue and now is the time.”

A challenge to lawmakers

Trustees did not ask any questions of Kowal, but his strongly worded testimony appeared to have an effect on them.

Earlier in the trustees’ meeting, Merryl Tisch, the chair of the SUNY Board of Trustees, had commented on the burden that the SUNY hospitals had already faced during the pandemic, and are likely to face again. And Kowal has publicly praised the excellent working relationship he has forged with SUNY Chancellor James Malatras, who has not been in that position three months but has instituted a number of policies to address testing, virus outbreaks and many other issues.

Kowal closed by issuing a challenge to the state government.

“I call on the Legislature to return to Albany and pass progressive legislation now,” he said. “I call on the governor to sign it. Let us not abandon that duty, our university, our community or our students. History is watching.”

Click Here to read UUP’s written testimony to the Board of Trustees.

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