Essential workers keep CUNY alive

Updated: July 23, 2020
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Workers are still on-site


While CUNY classes shifted to “distance learning” and most other work finally went remote during March, hundreds of essential workers still report to CUNY, even if occasionally. They cut the checks, patrol the campus, clean and maintain the buildings, staff the food pantries and take care of thousands of lab animals. PSC members and other workers who are doing essential work on campus are taking creative measures to keep on-site CUNY services safe, and they are doing whatever they can to reduce the time they spend physically on campus. And outside of CUNY, many CUNY faculty and staff work other jobs where they are doing essential work.

CUNY’s “essential” workers said they are mission-driven, committed to the work they do and the students they serve. Some of these workers spoke to Clarion Associate Editor Shomial Ahmad about the important work they do on campus.

Nicole Swient
Adjunct CLT, Computer Engineering Technology
College Assistant, Computer Information Services
New York City College of Technology

Up until late March, I was coming to campus to work. It was kind of scary going in and riding public transportation while people were ignoring social distancing measures. Once we got to campus, we took safety measures. We all wore masks and gloves. We were able to keep washing our hands, use sanitizer and gloves and everything else.

Nicole Swient
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We were getting the entire campus ready for remote work. There were around 10 of us, configuring desktop and laptop computers to accept VPN (virtual private network) access. You have to make documentation so that their home computers accept the VPNs. You distribute the computers and note who has which computer. It’s a whole, big process.

It was really exhausting. There are thousands of faculty and staff on campus and we were trying to fulfill the entire campus’s needs within a short span of time. It was very rewarding to hear that people were able to work remotely because of our work. We are still assisting people — but remotely now.

After I stopped going to campus, many of my colleagues went in to distribute laptops and tablets to students. Campus security was going into offices and turning on people’s computers so they could remote in. It was amazing how one CUNY family came together.

Waleek Boone
Student Life Specialist, Transition Academy
Higher Education Assistant
Medgar Evers College

From l to r: Mckenley Dieudonne, Waleek Boone, Savannah Eustace and Joel Strothers (photo credit: Mckenley Dieudonne)
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I come in three days a week to work in the food pantry at Medgar Evers. The hours vary so we can accommodate morning, afternoon and evening students. I have three amazing volunteers, who are current and former MEC students. Without them, I wouldn't be able to keep the pantry open.

The place is sanitized before we start and after we finish. We have gloves, masks, bleach, and we have what we need to protect ourselves. The students who visit the pantry keep a six-foot distance.

We give out prepackaged bags. Students can choose from frozen whole chicken, frozen chicken patties, frozen fish, canned beans, and peanut butter, among other things. The people who visit are very appreciative. They're always thanking us. They know we're risking our lives to help serve them. Some have lost their jobs. Others are pretty much homeless or housing insecure. I understand the importance of having food on the table so you can have the focus and stamina for your classes.

I know that COVID-19 is a deadly virus. I'm taking precautions, but I can't live in fear. I'm here to serve the students because if the people before me lived in fear, I wouldn't be in the position that I am in.

Victoria O’Shea
Student Manager, ASAP
Higher Education Assistant
Queensborough Community College
Master Outpatient Counselor
Samaritan Daytop Village

I work as a substance abuse outpatient counselor three nights a week in addition to my full-time job at QCC. We are essential employees because in times of crisis like this, the rate of relapse increases drastically. Approximately 95 percent of our clients also have legal issues and are mandated to get treatment, and many of our clients don’t have easy access to phones and the internet.

We’re offering teleconference, virtual, and in-person options for clients to receive services, but our attendance rate is still very low. These days about four clients attend per group; before the public health crisis, we typically had 10 people in one session.

My typical day: I enter the building, go straight to the office for the Lysol spray. I spray the keypad used to clock-in. I go to the room in which I will conduct my group and spray down every surface. I also ensure that there is a minimum of six feet between seats.

In late March, two colleagues at Samaritan Daytop Village tested positive for COVID-19. The company had the place deep cleaned the next day but the cleaning agency did an improper job. Unfortunately, I got really sick, and I was afraid that I had contracted COVID-19. Once I was able to get tested, the results came back negative.

I did not go into work when I was sick. I didn’t want to risk exposing my colleagues or my clients. When the public health crisis hit, I knew that I would be at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. I was willing to take that risk because I know that in times of crisis there are higher rates of relapse and first-time addiction. I suppose most people in helping professions have that commitment.

Being a catalyst in the process of someone’s ability to lead a happier and healthier life is not only my mission, it’s my passion. I have learned so much from my clients, probably much more than what they’ve learned from me.

Joanne Niekrash-Camhi
Director of Animal Facilities
Senior College Laboratory Technician
College of Staten Island

Four of us, all CLTs at CSI, are working on campus. We also have part-time animal technicians and college assistants helping out too. I work a full day, five days a week. Our workload has changed. There’s more physical labor, and we cover other co-workers’ responsibilities for different reasons at different times.

Ana Rodriguez, co-worker of Joanne Niekrash-Camhi
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For example, we have a college assistant who doesn't have a car and would have to commute. We all agreed to have her telecommute. Some of our staff have been exhausted and just needed a break at different points. It is very stressful having to leave the safety of your house to come to work.

We care very deeply for our animals and we knew when we took the job that they need us 365 days a year. We come in during snowstorms, hurricanes, power outages, holidays and now during pandemics. We house mice, pigeons, naked mole-rats and frogs.

Before the pandemic, we would always wear lab coats, goggles, surgical masks and gloves to protect us from the different contaminants that we are exposed to during a shift — be it bedding, feces, urine, etc. In a way, the pandemic is not a big change for us.

The campus is a ghost town. I believe it is just Public Safety, EHS and our staff reporting to campus. It is eerie in one sense. But having the wildlife — deer, groundhogs and skunks — feel free to explore the campus puts a smile on my face every day.

I do this work because I love animals. They need us right now. The other option would have been to euthanize close to 1,500 animals, and I just couldn't do that.

Jaci Maurer
Director, Lehman College Child Care Center
Lehman College

Jaci Maurer
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Our center has remained open throughout the crisis. Even though child care centers were ordered closed by the New York City Department of Health, our center remained open at the request of the governor and CUNY Central to provide child care for frontline and essential workers, regardless of their affiliation with Lehman.

About four children come in every day, and another 35 participate remotely in our virtual activities. The kids are aware that things are a little off, but they’re really resilient. We do the regular activities: story time, art, science, math, music and movement, lunch and an activity of their choosing.

We have children of restaurant workers and health care workers come to the center. When they come in, we take everyone’s temperature, including parents. The kids get a kick out of that. One day, I took a child’s temperature, and the child immediately said, “Take Daddy’s, take Daddy’s.”

My staff and I wear protective masks and maintain social distancing protocols. Staff from Lehman College’s Building and Grounds Department provide the protective materials we need, including masks, gloves and sanitizer. They also come in several times a day and disinfect everything.

I’ve worked at the child care center for 18 years. We are happy to work and be here for the people who are providing essential services for city residents during this crisis. It’s kind of in our DNA to serve others.