On Campus

‘Deep inequity’: Some at-risk SU employees ineligible for COVID-19 vaccine

Andrew Denning | Contributing Writer

SU employees currently eligible for the vaccine in New York state include instructors teaching in-person classes and staff members in student-facing positions.

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Many faculty members and staff at Syracuse University were able to receive COVID-19 vaccines as early as mid-January.

But some groups, including the custodians who clean the rooms used to isolate infected students, still aren’t eligible.

To Scott Phillipson, an SU College of Law graduate and president of SEIU Local 200United, the union representing many university employees, this is a huge oversight.

“They’ve endured a year of this. They’ve put their lives at risk. They continue to put their lives at risk,” Phillipson said. “They should be allowed to get in line, at least.”

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While a large share of eligible SU employees managed to get vaccinated well before the semester began, faculty, university officials and union representatives said that gaps in eligibility have left other at-risk employees vulnerable.

SU employees currently eligible for the vaccine in New York state include instructors teaching in-person classes and staff members in student-facing positions. Employees who are 65 years old and older or with preexisting medical conditions are also eligible. But many non-student-facing employees, such as research faculty, custodians, library staff and maintenance workers, may not be able to get vaccinated until later in the semester.

“It’s an affront to folks who have been out in the trenches, working for a year, to have them be told by the state, ‘You’re not eligible,’” Phillipson said.

Although SU is not actively tracking how many university employees have received the vaccine, faculty described the vaccination process as relatively seamless.

At the county’s request, SU’s office of human resources has provided faculty and staff who are eligible for the vaccine with a letter verifying their employment, said Mike Haynie, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation and head of SU’s COVID-19 response.

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Kyle Miller, an associate professor in the School of Architecture, said he received regular emails from SU about the status of the vaccination effort. When registration opened up to faculty, the university sent him and his colleagues a link to sign up to get the vaccine.

Now, all five instructors in Miller’s first-year design studio have been vaccinated, including the teaching assistants.

“100% of the people I interact with, professional and socially, have been vaccinated,” Miller said. “I think everybody who was eligible and wanted to receive the vaccine has one.”

Elizabeth Wimer, an associate teaching professor of entrepreneurship in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, received both her first and second dose of the vaccine at the Onondaga County War Memorial. The greatest inconvenience she and her colleagues experienced with the process was the mild side effects after their second doses, she said.

“We have not even had the sniffles since last year, so feeling any sort of illness or sickness is sort of novel,” she said. “We forgot what being sick feels like.”

But for other Onondaga County residents, the vaccine’s rollout has gone less smoothly. Some described the registration process as chaotic and difficult for those who need the vaccine most.

Some faculty teaching in-person courses are concerned about the gaps in vaccine eligibility among SU employees. When a university official said at a University Senate meeting that custodial workers aren’t eligible, Coran Klaver, an associate professor and chair of English at SU, was shocked.

It’s an affront to folks who have been out in the trenches, working for a year, to have them be told by the state that ‘you’re not eligible’
Scott Phillipson, SU College of Law graduate and president of SEIU Local 200United

“My jaw dropped,” she said. “That just seems to me crazy, because those people are cleaning rooms students are in 24 hours. I’m in a classroom for an hour and twenty minutes with students and socially distanced.”

In response, Klaver launched a Change.org petition to expand vaccine eligibility to custodial workers cleaning isolation spaces. The petition, which Klaver hopes will get Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attention, has over 160 signatures so far.

“There’s this deep inequity in who’s getting the vaccine, and that’s not being addressed,” Klaver said. “I’m so happy I have a vaccine, but I’m not one of the people who need it most.”

Like Klaver, Phillipson remains hopeful that SEIU’s lobbying efforts may influence the state government.

It wouldn’t be the first time the union had helped expand vaccine eligibility in New York. When emergency medical services workers were initially left out of the first phase of the state’s rollout, SEIU worked to convince Cuomo to add them to the list, Phillipson said.



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The union has taken the same position on expanding eligibility for other at-risk essential workers at colleges in New York and beyond.

“In any given dorm at any given time, our custodians are being exposed to waste products and things and people that could have the virus,” Phillipson said. “It’s dangerous.”

At the same time, the university has also begun making large-scale preparations in the hopes of hosting a vaccination site on campus. Though eligibility for the vaccine remains restricted to select at-risk groups, Haynie said that SU is prepared to take a more active role in the vaccination process.

The university informed the New York State Department of Health in early January that it was prepared to serve as a vaccine distribution center, Haynie said in an email to The Daily Orange.

SU has already obtained specialized refrigeration units to store the COVID-19 vaccine and outfitted them with temperature monitoring to ensure no vaccines spoil. Health staff at the Barnes Center at the Arch have also been trained to administer the vaccines, as many of them helped provide vaccinations to county residents prior to the start of the spring semester, Haynie said.

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Manley Field House and the Carrier Dome, which SU utilizes as its campus testing center, are both locations the university would consider distributing vaccines from, Haynie said.

“Bottom line: Syracuse University is ready, willing, and able if called upon to serve as a vaccination (point of distribution) for either the County or NYS,” Haynie said in the statement. “All we need is to be activated, and the vaccine.”

County officials haven’t yet taken up SU’s offer, though Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon has indicated they may consider it in the future. As more young people become eligible to receive the vaccine, an SU vaccination site would make more sense, he has said.

Once the rollout reaches that point, SU will decide whether to make the vaccine mandatory for members of the campus community ahead of the fall semester, Haynie said — with religious and medical exceptions.

Phillipson said he understands that expanding eligibility to include more essential university employees may invite more people into an already chaotic rollout. But after a year working on the frontlines of the pandemic, for essential workers, it’s a matter of respect, he said.

“The line may be very long,” he said. “But they should be able to get in.”







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