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Chancellor: SUNY, union can't reach deal on COVID-19 testing community college staff

Amy Neff Roth
Observer-Dispatch

The State University of New York’s plan to have its campuses routinely tested for COVID-19 has hit a snag when it comes to some of its staff at community colleges, according to a letter from Chancellor Jim Malatras.

SUNY hasn’t been able to reach a collective bargaining agreement with SUNY employees at community colleges who are members of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union, Malatras wrote in the letter addressed to NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.

Without the agreement, those employees cannot be tested.

NYSUT represents more than 8,000 employees at 27 community colleges across the state, including some of the staff at Mohawk Valley Community College and Herkimer County Community College, according to the union. Represented staff may include faculty, adjuncts and/or other staff, depending on the college. 

More:NYSUT sues state to prevent looming cuts for education

So far, SUNY has performed more than 425,000 tests on its campuses with a 0.48% positivity rate, according to the Nov. 13 letter. By comparison, Oneida County reached its lowest rate of 0.4% positivity since the pandemic began for several weeks over the summer into early fall.

“Testing is the foundation of our ability to keep the virus at bay and to manage and mitigate issues as they arise,” Malatras wrote. “To that end, for the benefit of our most valuable asset — human capital ­— we were able to take SUNY Upstate Medical University’s groundbreaking, easy-to-administer, pooled saliva tests and swiftly enact mandatory free testing agreement with all of our partners in labor: United University Professions (UUP), Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), Public Employees Federation (PEF), and the Police Benevolent Association of New York State (PBANYS) through collective bargaining."

SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras wrote a letter to New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta seeking an agreement between SUNY and NYSUT members on community college campuses on routine COVID-19 testing.

Negotiations with SUNY are handled by local unions, not by NYSUT itself, although NYSUT may provide support.

In response, Pallotta said NYSUT does support routine testing.  

“NYSUT routinely has conversations with local community college unions on issues related to the pandemic, including testing, and we know that this is an issue being worked on with college administrations around the state,” he said in an emailed statement.

“We will continue to advocate on a statewide level that all education institutions err on the side of caution during this pandemic and work with their entire campus communities to take the necessary steps to protect the health and safety of students and staff alike.”

Negotiations with other unions yielded some compromises, Malatras wrote, including on what types of tests are used, whether testing gets done on personal or employer time, adjusting the frequency based on how many people are on campus, having union representatives involved in the decision-making process, privacy protections and making sure that SUNY covers the cost.

He then urged NYSUT to reach a similar agreement.

“If testing is mandatory for our students — our principle and collective responsibility at our colleges and universities — then the entire college community should participate,” he wrote.

The nature of community colleges, including the presence of commuter students, puts them at a greater risk, Malatras noted.

“I am asking,” he concluded, “that NYSUT officially engage as soon as possible so that we may quickly implement a uniform testing at SUNY community colleges.”

Amy Roth is the health and education reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. For unlimited access to her stories, please subscribe at the top of the uticaod.com homepage or activate your digital account today. Email Amy Roth at aroth@gannett.com.