In a letter to administrators published on Jan. 26, Georgetown staff members accused the university of violating its Just Employment Policy by forcing employees to become public health screeners for Spring 2021 and taking away health benefits from those who refused to be repositioned.
These employees were selected as part of the university’s Redeploy Georgetown program, which seeks to reassign existing staff to new roles involving “visitor registration, wellness screening and perimeter access support” during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, staff members allege that Georgetown’s Human Resources (HR) department has used the threat of unpaid leave to coerce employees into positions where they are inadequately trained and vulnerable to COVID-19.
Two Redeploy staff members spoke to The Voice under the condition of anonymity due to fears about their job security. The first employee explained that Redeploy Georgetown began last spring as a voluntary program “where staff members whose work was significantly decreased due to COVID could take on duties related to helping the university continue running operations during the pandemic.”
This program continued voluntarily through the fall, but in the spring semester became a mandatory reassignment of staff members as the university threatened employee salary and health benefits.
“On December 16, two days before winter break, 83 employees, as we were told in a town hall, received a message from HR saying that they were chosen to join the Redeploy Georgetown program, and if they didn’t accept the position, that they would be put on unpaid leave,” according to the aforementioned staff member.
Few if any of these employees, who work for various offices and departments at Georgetown, have any previous experience in public health positions.
The Voice obtained an email sent by the HR department to Redeploy staff members. In the announcement, HR wrote that “effective January 14, 2021, if you choose not to accept your Redeploy assignment, you will be relieved of all duties (both of your primary role and of your Redeploy assignment) and placed in a temporary unpaid personal leave status.”
Adding that the unpaid leave would last for the entire duration of the Spring 2021 semester, HR listed the health benefits that would no longer be provided to employees on leave, despite the pandemic. “If you are currently enrolled in medical, dental, and/or vision insurance, you must pay the entire (employee and the employer share) cost of these benefits while on unpaid leave,” the email read. “If you are enrolled in Basic Accidental Death & Dismemberment (AD&D) Insurance, Voluntary AD&D, Child Life Insurance and Spouse Life Insurance, you will not have coverage.”
According to staff members, HR’s ultimatum violates the clause of Georgetown’s Just Employment Policy which promises “access to appropriate grievance procedures.” They indicated that the cost alone of paying for healthcare insurance while on unpaid leave would force employees to participate in the Redeploy program against their will.
“That’s probably over $500 a month and I wouldn’t be getting a paycheck. So, putting employees in a really difficult situation where you’re essentially feeling like you have to take this position,” the second employee explained.
The staff members claim that none of the workers selected to be redeployed were consulted about their medical conditions or susceptibility to COVID-19 prior to the announcement of the program. “I was told that there are people on the list that are medically vulnerable,” the first employee said.
“They were just told in a compulsory way that you have to work for this program,” the employee added. “Every professional I’ve talked to has said this is egregious.”
None of the workers affected by Redeploy Georgetown are unionized, limiting the action they can take to challenge their reassignments. The Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE), which experienced its own conflicts with university administrators over their refusal to bargain over COVID-19 protections for graduate workers, expressed support for the Redeploy staff members on their Twitter page.
GAGE President Jewel Tomasula (PHD ‘24) explained that it was not the first time Georgetown had tried to compel employees to work on campus despite public health concerns. “We definitely stand in solidarity, because we went through a similar battle in July, when it looked very real that we would have in-person teaching, and that we wouldn’t have a choice,” she recounted.
“It was exactly the same thing,” Tomasula said. “It was like you either teach in person or you take unpaid leave, which is worse than getting terminated or fired.”
Tomasula claimed that the university’s treatment of Redeploy Georgetown workers, however, was especially bad. “This is a uniquely egregious violation because their job is gone and they have to take this job that isn’t what they got hired for,” she noted.
“We want to do whatever we can to stand side by side with these staff because it’s unjust, totally unjust,” Tomasula said.
In an email to The Voice, a university spokesperson said that administrators were acting in the best interest of employees. “Redeploy Georgetown is a temporary and essential measure that supports our health and safety efforts on campus while keeping our workforce fully employed and avoiding potential employee impacts, such as salary reductions, furloughs, or layoffs.”
The university’s statement, however, did not acknowledge that employees who refuse to be reassigned would be placed on unpaid leave without health benefits.
The spokesperson also claimed that individual concerns regarding reassignments were being listened to. “We have a process through the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Affirmative Action (IDEAA) for employees to request accommodation related to their Redeploy position. In addition, we have listened to and addressed feedback from employees by adjusting Redeploy work schedules.”
However, the two Redeploy staff members disputed this claim, saying that there was no formal appeal process for redeployed staff with medical, caregiving, or educational needs. They noted that even after reaching out to IDEAA, there was no guaranteed accommodation for at-risk employees.
While health screening repositioning could put employees more at risk for COVID-19, the university maintains that extensive safety protocols are in place. “Consistent with Georgetown’s Just Employment Policy, and guided by our public health team, the University has implemented a number of important health and safety measures.” the spokesperson wrote. “These measures include a rigorous COVID-19 Testing Protocol, mandatory mask-wearing while in public or shared spaces on campus, a COVID-19 Daily Check-in via mobile app, and restricting building access to community members with a green Building Access Badge.”
However, in an email to The Voice on Jan. 25, the first day of work for the Redeploy health screeners, the first Redeploy employee claimed the university was not adhering to its health guidelines. “Multiple staff were not tested for COVID and had not received their green badge to allow them to be on campus. HR staff was aware of this and they still sent them to their posts to screen students and visitors going into buildings,” they wrote.
The second Redeploy staff member argued that at the end of the day, the university wants to save face and save money. “Georgetown wants to be able to say that they haven’t laid anybody off during this pandemic. That’s their number one talking point,” said the employee. “But the university would also have to pay unemployment benefits if they actually fired us.”
According to them, university administrators admitted in a town hall that the Redeploy program saved Georgetown from having to pay for additional trained personnel.
“All of this happened because they didn’t want to spend $5 million to hire public health contractors to do this work,” the employee said. “If more people knew about this, the university would have to answer to it.”