Home Community News Ryerson unions say university response to open letter about COVID-19 concerns inadequate

Ryerson unions say university response to open letter about COVID-19 concerns inadequate

by Vanessa Balintec

No meeting took place despite a letter by the Ryerson All-Union Coalition calling for a change to the university’s COVID-19 response 

students stand outside of the steps of the Sheldon and Tracy Student Learning Centre
(Holly Walker/Ryersonian)

Ryerson University is fielding growing criticism from its own community for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A joint statement penned more than a month ago by five Ryerson employee and student unions called on the university to address seven areas of concern and meet with union representatives. However, it amounted to little change, said Michael Dick, vice-president of communications of CUPE Local 3094, Ryerson’s contract academic union.

“For the most part, the response referred to initiatives the university had already put in place in light of the pandemic, such as online programs and resources related to counselling, dependant care, and academic accommodation support,” said Dick. 

“There was no indication that the university is prepared to offer additional support to faculty, staff, and students along the lines requested in our statement.”

A statement made on Feb. 5 highlighted shortcomings in the university’s overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The public statement called for additional mental health supports for contract faculty and part-time students, increased resources for academic accommodation support, increased communication about COVID-19 cases. 

It also called for the creation of new policies that address the needs of students and staff with children or dependants, meaningful implementation of equity and community inclusion policies that would lead to the hiring of more racialized tenure-track faculty, and the creation of more contract lecturer appointments with full health benefits. 

“Ryerson University administration did not have a joint meeting to address the concerns,” said Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) president Janet Rodriguez. “They did provide a two-page response to the concerns indicating the university’s actions and updates on those topics — many of which were already well known by the signers.”

CESAR, OPSEU Local 596, CUPE Local 3904, the Ryerson Faculty Association (RFA) and the Ryerson Graduate Students’ Union, penned the statement together, representing professional staff, full-time and part-time academic employees, tenure-track faculty, part-time and full-time graduate students and other groups within the Ryerson community.  

In a statement, a university spokesperson told the Ryersonian about specific supports that are already in place and have been made available on their website, such as the STRIVE Online program for drop-in learning strategies, the Employee and Family Assistance Program, and Ryerson’s partnership with keep.meSAFE, a temporary virtual counselling platform to help provide students who need immediate support. 

“The health, safety and well-being of Ryerson community members is a top priority for the university,” said the spokesperson. “During what has been an incredibly challenging year for so many, it has been critically important to provide our students, faculty and staff with the support they need. As such, the university has been taking action and increasing support all year and shared this information with the All-Union coalition.” 

Many union members and students have complained about the university’s lack of transparency regarding COVID-19 cases on campus. CUPE 3904 and RFA union members have called on Ryerson to communicate more transparently, highlighting how the majority of Ontario universities broadcast daily COVID-19 counts on their websites. Ryerson chooses not to. 

“We are especially concerned that the university would not commit to adopting a more transparent approach,” said Dick. “Most of the academic personnel who have been required to work on campus throughout the pandemic are members of our labour union. We take their health and safety very seriously and require greater cooperation from the university administration in order to best serve our members.”

Rodriguez said the university’s response was that they had “given a lot of thought” to their approach.

“Throughout the course of the pandemic, the number of reported cases connected to our campus has been and continues to be very, very low,” said Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi. “There are so few people on campus and so few incidents of COVID, that we’re not reporting numbers publicly as it would be easy to identify the individuals in question.”

The public statement, shared in the wake of Bell Let’s Talk Day, an annual event that aims to raise awareness to mental health struggles in the country, also called on the university to expand mental health support.

“Many campus students and employees felt a need to air some gaps their members witnessed in Ryerson’s support for mental health,” said Rodriguez. “Some of the services from their extended insurance plans (EAP) offer limited services and they are not culturally appropriate to address issues of racism, for example.”

Mental health problems have been exacerbated by precarious working conditions, as well as the pandemic, Dick said.

“We are a union of precariously employed academics,” he said. “Many of our part-time members have lost work over the past year and were not eligible for comprehensive health benefits in the first place. Moreover, part-time and full-time contract lecturers do not enjoy any job security beyond one term, even if they have been teaching at Ryerson for many years. Precarity in employment clearly impacts mental health and well-being, especially in light of the present circumstances.”

The unions also called on Ryerson to allow students to attend and participate in Joint Health and Safety Committee meetings, an advisory group made of management and employees that work together to promote and make recommendations to improve health and safety. 

Given the impact of the pandemic on students, Rodriguez said she was surprised and “particularly disheartened” at the university’s refusal to let students weigh in, even in a non-voting capacity.

A university spokesperson said membership to the joint health and safety committee, and how members are selected, is determined by the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, which makes student membership not possible. However, Rodriguez disputes that.

“Nothing in the Occupational Health and Safety Act prohibits guests from being included and invited to meetings,” she said.

Rodriguez noted that there are at least three universities that include student membership in their respective Joint Health and Safety Committees or mention them in their terms of reference, including Nipissing University, University of Ottawa and University of Windsor

“Students make up a huge component of this campus and if discussions are taking place pertaining to the safety of our studying environment, we deserve to be at the table,” she said. 

The committee encourages students to connect with members to ask questions and express any needs or concerns, according to Ryerson’s communications team. 

Dick said the unions are still aiming to meet with Lachemi by the end of the winter term. 

“We believe it is imperative that such a meeting take place in order to ensure our concerns are fully noted and addressed,” he said. “This is especially true in light of the ongoing uncertainty regarding our learning and working conditions that will no doubt continue well into the fall.”

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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