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University of Illinois workers grapple with maskless guests and COVID-positive students

Union chapter president Dena Gary (center) holds sign during University of Illinois service employees protest in November 2021.

CHAMPAIGN – Cooks and custodians at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana say the univeristy rejected their proposal this week for stricter safety measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dena Gary is a head cook at the University of Illinois and the president of the Champaign-Urbana chapter of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73.

She and other union members want managers to intervene when event guests flaunt mask rules or when COVID-positive students eat in the dining halls.

“They’re having events where the guests don’t have to wear masks, but we have to wear masks the whole time we’re at work. There’s something wrong with that picture,” Gary says.

Union members say they report the rule-breaking to supervisors, only to see nothing done about it.

SEIU is in the middle of contract negotiations with the university. This week, the union learned that the university has rejected most of their COVID safety proposals.

University spokesperson Robin Kaler says that the university does not have a comment on the negotiations, except to confirm that the parties spoke about COVID rules.

The University of Illinois has been proactive about other COVID-19 safety measures. For example, all students and staff are required to get vaccinated and boosted. This has resulted in a 94 percent vaccination rate.

Waiting on wages

Most of the SEIU proposal to the university focuses on wages – in particular, a $5 per hour wage increase.

The two parties are still discussing non-financial items. To union members, it seems like the university is dragging its feet.

Kelsey Hayes cleans and maintains the Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall. She started her job during the COVID-19 pandemic at $15.90 an hour.

She says her bills barely squeeze into that budget – and sometimes they don’t.

“I’ve actually over drafted a couple of times, because I ran out of money. It’s always embarrassing. If I was getting paid more, I wouldn’t have done that.”

She struggles most to pay her car and phone bills each month. In April, she will bump up a salary tier and expects that to lift some of her financial stress.

She can’t imagine how coworkers with children cope on these wages, she says. 

Hayes is one of the members of her union’s bargaining team. She says it seems like the university isn’t taking their proposals seriously.

Kaler says that the university does “intend to reach a mutually agreeable compensation package” — after both parties have settled non-economic language in the contract.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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