Despite a global pandemic and a severe economic recession, Georgetown University has endangered many of its workers with threats to their wages and health insurance.
In August 2020, Georgetown launched Redeploy Georgetown, a program to distribute the work of maintaining public health precautions among currently employed Georgetown staff who volunteer to perform tasks like COVID-19 screenings at building entrances. In December 2020, the university began threatening nonunion workers and academic and administrative professionals with unpaid leave in order to make them participate in Redeploy Georgetown as more students returned to campus. The Editorial Board condemns these coercive measures and Georgetown’s failure to consider the well-being of vulnerable employees, which have left staff feeling unsafe and unheard. The university must move to end its coercive enforcement of Redeploy Georgetown and offer further accommodations to vulnerable populations in its workforce.
Redeploy Georgetown aims to save more than $5 million for the university by avoiding the costs of contracting workers for public health work and instead selecting current employees — based on factors like whether the staff has a reduced workload because of the pandemic — to fulfill these tasks. Another goal of the program is to preserve workers’ jobs and paychecks by minimizing staff furloughs. Despite these intentions, the program comes at great cost to Georgetown’s employees: If workers selected for Redeploy Georgetown decline their positions, they face mandatory unpaid leave and are forced to pay both the employee and employer contributions to their health insurance premiums. The university’s willingness to leave workers to pay 100% of their own health care premiums is particularly disturbing amid the pandemic.
To be sure, employees who participate in the program receive some benefits. Moreover, the program is vital to supporting health safety efforts on campus, according to a university spokesperson.
“Redeploy Georgetown is a temporary and essential measure that will save the University $5 million, and supports our health and safety efforts on campus while keeping our workforce fully employed,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Participants continue receiving their full salary and benefits, in addition to receiving free meals, free parking, personal protective equipment, and twice-weekly COVID-19 tests.”
Workers under the program, however, have noted conditions are far worse than the university describes. An anonymous coalition of authors who say their members include staff assigned to new positions under Redeploy Georgetown wrote an open letter to university administrators alleging multiple violations of Georgetown’s Just Employment Policy. The JEP commits Georgetown to providing all its workers a safe working environment, yet the employee group that wrote the letter reported the program made them feel unsafe in numerous ways.
One particularly egregious practice that violated the JEP was the university’s unclear process for accommodating staff who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus, according to the coalition of employees, whose members requested to remain anonymous to protect their employment status.
“Staff were shocked and scared when we were presented with this ultimatum. Nearly all redeployment duties would mean having direct contact with visitors to campus, significantly increasing our risk of exposure to COVID-19,” the group wrote in an email to The Hoya. “None of the communications or guidelines sent to redeployed staff explained how we could request accommodations for disability, health vulnerabilities, care responsibilities, or educational needs.”
The threat of unpaid leave and large increases to health care costs are incredibly inappropriate as this country weathers an unprecedented public health crisis and economic recession. Georgetown’s leveraging of unpaid leave and higher insurance fees leaves workers with essentially no option other than to accept their redeployment, making Redeploy Georgetown coercive at its core. Providing for employees’ safety, as the JEP mandates, means no worker should have to choose between being paid and preserving their health.
Further, Georgetown’s failure to communicate with staff regarding accommodations for employees with health vulnerabilities left employees scrambling to cover redeployment assignments for their immunocompromised coworkers, according to staff involved. Georgetown’s failure to protect its most vulnerable workers represents another deplorable violation of the university’s own JEP.
Employees of color are also particularly vulnerable to the program. Redeploy Georgetown disproportionately harms racial minorities, who already face greater risk of death from COVID-19 in the United States. Further, employees in the program were supervised by GUPD officers, according to the letter, which authors say made employees of color feel unsafe and revealed that the university did not fully consider workers’ wellbeing.
The burden of maintaining their own safety should not fall exclusively on employees, especially workers who are already more vulnerable amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Georgetown must go further to protect workers, according to the coalition of Georgetown employees.
“Staff should not have to put themselves in the compromising position of becoming whistleblowers, speaking anonymously to reporters and writing public letters calling out their employer, in order to get basic workplace and labor protections,” the group wrote. “Georgetown must do better. The values it claims to uphold demand it.”
Georgetown must immediately end its use of coercive methods like unpaid leave in recruiting employees for redeployment. If the university hopes to move forward with the Redeploy program, it should offer positive incentives to increase worker involvement instead. Further, Georgetown must improve its consideration of equity and workers’ safety going forward with its plan to reopen campus. The university must offer complete accommodations for immunocompromised or disabled workers and workers with dependents, and it must ensure that workers of color do not take disproportionate risks to keep our campus safe.
Without these reforms to Redeploy Georgetown, the university will continue to endanger its workers and violate its own commitments to a fair and safe work environment.
The Hoya’s Editorial Board is composed of six students and is chaired by the Opinion editor. Editorials reflect only the beliefs of a majority of the board and are not representative of The Hoya or any individual member of the board.