Mask Heroes

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Mask Heroes

HGSU-UAW provides masks for custodial workers
By MICHAEL KIELSTRA

“I’ve heard that, for a while, you weren’t receiving adequate personal protective equipment from Harvard for your job,” I said. “Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

Doris Reina-Lamdaverde, Harvard University custodian, is a woman who wastes no words.

I was introduced to her by Mark Wright, a graduate student in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and a member of the HGSU-UAW graduate student union. I had heard vague things about the union’s efforts to provide personal protective equipment to custodial workers, and had contacted him to learn more. “During the last week before spring break,” he said, “when all of the undergrads were being told… that they were going to have to leave campus… we were talking at one of our meetings about, ‘What’s something we could do to be supportive there?’”

The result was the HGSU-UAW mutual aid form, a web page on which people could sign up to either request or offer help. It attracted mostly “people looking for temporary housing, looking for places to store luggage, looking for maybe rides to the airport if they didn’t feel comfortable being in shared transport,” including one or two who were immunosuppressed and therefore could not risk the T. It was, in general, a great success: “Within maybe three or four days,” said Wright, “we had maybe three hundred people sign up to help in various ways,” enabling “pretty close to a 100% success rate.” Mostly, HGSU-UAW’s efforts were, and still are, targeted towards providing storage, housing, and short-term help.

However, they are by no means limited to that. Reina-Lamdaverde told me that a student from HGSU-UAW, with whom she had previously worked advocating for TPS workers and students at Harvard, had called her and asked if she needed anything. “We need masks,” she had said. “Harvard [does not] want to give us masks.” She told me that, on hearing the news of the growing epidemic, they had asked Harvard for masks so that, if one of them got infected, they would not make other people sick; Harvard had declined, citing the Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendations. (Wright, although he admitted he had not been involved with the mask effort in particular, said that he had heard that, when the custodians did have masks, those masks “weren’t responding to the cleaning agents that they were being told to use.”)

Once they heard about this, HGSU-UAW was able to use their existing mutual aid network—by now, over four hundred people have signed up to help via the form—to collect equipment. Wright mentioned talk about either making masks or purchasing them with HGSU-UAW resources, but, according to him, “It was mostly from labs.” Some faculty have been leading their own efforts to donate lab protective equipment, but those reported on in the Harvard Gazette have sent their surplus resources to hospitals. Reina-Lamdaverde told me that HGSU-UAW pursued more grassroots initiatives as well, straight-up asking students if they had masks they could donate. “One student told me she [was giving] me the mask a friend from China sent to her and she decided to donate for us,” she said. “This was amazing, how they [supported] us.”

This could only ever be a temporary solution. On March 26, in the middle of the union’s donation effort, NBC News published a brief piece in which Reina-Lamdaverde called Harvard out for failing to provide enough masks for her and her co-workers. Shortly thereafter, Harvard’s custodial staff threatened to strike if they were not given masks. In response, Harvard once again provided adequate personal protective equipment, and has continued to do so up until now. HGSU-UAW has stopped collecting personal protective equipment. Nonetheless, Reina-Lamdaverde has not lost sight of the fact that “in the first moment,” it was the students who had her back.

In an emailed statement, Michael Conner, Director of Communications for Harvard Campus Services, wrote, “Harvard made the early decision to significantly reduce the population on our campus not just for the safety of those who departed, but also to help protect the students, faculty, and staff who need to remain at the University. Our custodial workers play an extraordinarily important role in maintaining our essential services, especially given the COVID-19 outbreak. To keep these workers safe, Harvard’s public health professionals have developed protocols consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and public health experts. Each custodian is furnished with personal protective equipment appropriate for the situation they encounter.

“Based on the protocols, when our custodians are engaged in regular, routine cleaning and disinfection, they are provided with the appropriate PPE including nitrile gloves. Custodians are also trained in the proper way to put on, remove, and replace the gloves as well as how to follow up with proper hand hygiene. In addition, custodians are trained for how to safely clean spaces where COVID-19 might be present. If a request for cleaning comes in after a person has been sick with any illness, custodians are provided with additional PPE, including face masks with goggles or safety glasses, a coverall or other covering to place over their uniform, and other equipment as needed, when they carry out cleaning and disinfection. We remain committed to providing all of our essential workers with the appropriate tools and training they need to stay safe on campus.

“Our custodial management team is also conducting regular reviews of how our workplace policies are being implemented.”

Michael Kielstra ’22 (pmkielstra@college.harvard.edu) writes News for the Independent.