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'People's lives are more important than money,' OU and Norman community members hold die-in protesting OU labor practices and COVID-19 response

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A woman in funeral attire pretends to mourn protesters laying in front of makeshift headstones during the Die-In on July 28.

With makeshift tombstones standing behind their heads reading “COVID Class 2020” and “RIP — Victim of OU Administration,” and X’s drawn on their eyelids, demonstrators laid down in unrest in front of Headington Hall.

One protester dressed in all-black mourning attire held black flowers and bowed their head. Others stood beside Lindsey Street, holding signs reading “We are not disposable,” “Administration of death” and displaying the movement’s hashtag, #shutdownou.

The demonstrators, members of the OU and Norman communities, held a “die-in” outside of the OU Board of Regents meeting held in Headington Hall Tuesday afternoon. They issued five demands: no medical disclosure required for faculty or staff seeking remote accommodations for the fall, an online option for all instructors without penalty or qualifications, time and a half for hourly staff — including hazard pay and sick leave — remote work options for any position that can be done remotely and furloughing anyone making over $100,000 per year before laying off staff members.

Spanish faculty member and demonstration organizer Sarah Warmker said the die-in was created to remind administrators how grave their concerns are.

“The OU administration has not directly addressed the most serious concern of faculty and staff — which is death,” Warmker said. 

In Norman, three people have died this week from COVID-19.

Warmker said the process for requesting a remote work accommodation — criticized by the OU faculty and staff group OU Workers United and the Faculty Senate Executive Committee — ignores significant factors in accessibility and does not demonstrate trust in instructors to make pedagogical decisions for their classes or safety decisions for themselves and their families.

To request remote accommodations, faculty and staff were told to fill out a form listing three options: Category A for faculty and staff who are “at an increased risk for severe illness as defined by the CDC due to COVID-19,” Category B for faculty and staff who “have a family member and/or a member of their households for whom they provide primary care that is at an increased risk for severe illness as defined by the CDC due to COVID‐19,” and Category C for “other.”

To select Category A, faculty and staff also had to complete the Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation request form, which has to be signed by a physician.

In an email to the OU Community, Interim Senior Vice President and Provost Jill Irvine said 97 percent of remote accommodations from instructors and graduate teaching assistants were approved. Irvine said all Category A and B requests were approved. Irvine said Category C requests not approved were based on the number of students affected by an online switch.

Warmker said the first, second and fourth demands of the faculty and staff members address the issue of having to prove disability in Category A to be allowed to teach remotely — a practice she said ignores the reality that people without preexisting conditions can still face severe, long term health issues or death from COVID-19. 

“We don't want to have to make any kind of medical disclosures about our private health situations, especially for a situation like this when we don't even know for sure who will be ultimately affected by COVID-19,” Warmker said. “A lot of people that have died from this disease, didn't know that they had pre-existing conditions, didn't know what it was that caused them to be vulnerable. And so we think it's unfair to make this arbitrary distinction about getting medical records to disclose when the truth is we don't even know who, with certainty, is vulnerable to this disease.”

Warmker also said the request system requires medical privileges some may not have.

“It's not fair to those of our instructors who may not be insured over the summer and don't have easy access to medical records and to medical attention right now,” Warmker said. “It's a very difficult time to be able to access doctors’ offices and healthcare. And so we just feel that that entire process is unnecessary and unjust.”

The group’s other two demands address difficulties staff members face in regard to their personal safety and job security.

“Whenever the university is in a budget crisis and looking at layoffs, the first people that they always cut are low wage workers and student employees,” Warmker said. “When in fact, they should be doing the opposite of that in increasing the pay for people who have to risk their lives to come to campus and try to keep campus safe for the people who do need to be here. And so we ask that all those workers who are being asked to take these risks receive time and a half hazard pay. We don't think it's fair to ask someone to risk their life for less than a living wage.”

For reference, President Joseph Harroz’s annual salary is $500,000. Former Senior Vice President and Provost Kyle Harper, now a professor of classics and letters, senior adviser to the president and provost emeritus, will make $329,086 — while on sabbatical until July 2021.

Harper’s salary was approved in the regents’ meeting that the die-in took place outside of.

Universities such as Harvard, Stanford and the University of Southern California have announced cuts to administrative salaries by 25 percent, 20 percent and 10 percent respectively, to soften the blow of financial consequences from COVID-19.

Mauve Kay, an OU office staff member and protester at the event, said in her seven years of employment at the university, staff have received one cost-of-living adjustment. She said Harroz’s statement at a July town hall that housing and food employees may face layoffs if residence halls are unable to open made her “furious.”

“It is absolutely appalling to me that the administration's first response to any kind of crisis — whether it's budgetary or the COVID crisis — is to lay off staff,” Kay said. “... Now we have reached a point where the first people on the chopping block are some of the lowest-paid people on campus. These are people in lower social classes. These are people that are primarily people of color. The fact that not one single vice president has stepped up and said ‘I will take a salary reduction in order to prevent people from losing their jobs during a pandemic,’ is inconceivable.”

While other members of OU’s administration have not taken pay cuts, OU Vice President and Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione announced a 10 percent pay cut July 1 from all earners making over $1 million in the athletic department, including himself.

Kay said the message the university has sent to staff is one of devalue and disregard.

“It shows exactly how disposable these people truly think we are,” Kay said. “It shows how disposable they think staff (are) — staff who are always mentioned last at this university.

It’s always faculty, students and staff. It's never staff first.”

Kay said the administration fails to see OU’s 8,275 staff members as people with real needs and families to support.

“It breaks my heart to see people that I know and love and care about have to fret over whether or not they'll be able to afford their rent,” Kay said. “… This is a housing need. This is a healthcare need. This is about people's families — it is not just the individual employee who is going to lose their livelihood. This is putting people's children at risk. This is putting people's spouses at risk. This is putting people's parents at risk.”

Kay said she will be able to work her job remotely, and she was able to choose to do so without submitting a request. She said she was fortunate, but others on campus weren’t as lucky.

“Do I think that the staff that are not being given that option (to work remotely), that are being forced back into unsafe conditions, are being respected? Absolutely not,” Kay said. “There are a whole lot of people on this campus that I care about deeply. And I don't see that same amount of care coming from the administration.”

In addition to faculty and staff, Norman community members also demonstrated at the die-in. Mikelyn Jones and her child Alex Jones — a rising sophomore at Colorado State University — came to Headington Hall to protest the university’s labor practices. Mikelyn said Alex is taking a semester off and staying with their parents in Norman to avoid the virus.

Mikelyn said in addition to the die-in demands, she thinks the university should be all-online except for necessary lab classes. 

“With the way that the numbers are going, bringing other people in from other states — and college students, as wonderful as they are, they do have a tendency to not necessarily make the best decisions when it comes to things like transmitting diseases of any kind,” Mikelyn said. “And so I don't think that as a community, we can rely on the students to be taking the steps that they need to take because they're young, and they don't necessarily have the mental maturity to make the right decision.”

According to the Oklahoma Department of Health, 18 to 35 year olds make up 35.85 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma — the largest of any age group.

In a Wednesday update, OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said the virus is principally being spread from people in the 18 to 35 age group to people in the 65 and older age group.

“Even though the biggest majority of newly diagnosed cases are still in that younger age group, they’re exposing other people and, in Oklahoma, we’ve been watching the rate of infection for those patients 65 and older go up,” Bratzler said in the update. “Many of those people in that age group who get infected have been exposed by younger people that may be more social or mobile out in the community setting.” 

Mikelyn said she understands the university has financial concerns, which she said stem from a lack of adequate education funding from the state. This year, Oklahoma cut 3.95 percent from its higher education budget. Regardless, she said, the university has bigger things to worry about than money.

“People's lives are more important than money,” Mikelyn said. “... I don't think that there's any amount of money that you can say, ‘it's OK to kill X number of people because now we made our budget.’” 

Mikelyn said OU should focus on protecting its students, rather than prioritizing an in-person learning environment.

“They need to be protecting their students so that those students will still be around next year to enroll,” Mikelyn said. “And so that those students will still have parents around to pay for their enrollment.”

Warmker said as the administration moves forward with reopening, faculty and staff input should be a vital component in its plans. Warmker pointed out that though students were given the opportunity to voice their opinions in a survey about in-person or remote courses, faculty and staff were given no survey.

“We want the administration to bring faculty and staff who've been left out of this conversation into the conversation and to truly listen to these demands,” Warmker said “... We have (COVID-19) numbers that are worse than they were in March when we went on online. And so until the administration decides to actually prioritize public health, they're really not going to see a lot of cooperation and buy-in from faculty, staff or frankly, from students who are also right now dealing with the consequences of layoffs.”

Asked how OU has used faculty and staff input in its reopening policies, Director of Media Relations Kesha Keith said in an email to The Daily, “The University has sought input from many representatives across numerous departments and colleges in determining policies related to the return to campus.”

Should the administration choose not to listen to faculty and staff concerns, Warmker said employees may respond by refusing to comply.

“This is not just a problem that's limited to OU,” Warmker said. “We're seeing the same issue with Normal Public Schools. We're seeing the same issue across the state and across the country. So in terms of how people choose to respond to it, I think there will be many ways that people will respond to it, but what they're definitely not going to do is just comply with decisions that they weren't included in.”

Beth Wallis is a senior journalism major and political science minor, and news editor for The Daily. Previously, she worked as a junior news reporter covering university research and news managing editor.

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