United University Professions, the union representing SUNY faculty members, has started negotiations with SUNY and Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office regarding a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for faculty, UUP spokesperson Mike Lisi confirmed Monday.
“Because negotiations are ongoing, we cannot talk about details publicly,” Lisi said. “Talks are progressing, and they are positive in tone.”
The discussions come more than a month after Hochul first announced the requirement for faculty during a New Year’s Eve press conference.
But unlike COVID-19 vaccine requirements for students, the mandate for faculty cannot go into effect until UUP and the state come to an agreement regarding its implementation and due process procedures for non-compliant employees. It remains to be seen when and how talks will conclude.
Hochul’s announcement “blindsided” campus union leaders, who received almost no communication from the governor’s office regarding the new mandate, according to Phil Glick, president of the Buffalo Health Sciences Chapter for UUP.
“The governor… didn’t provide any details, nor did her office provide any further details, nor will she answer any questions on it,” Glick said. “And simultaneously, the [SUNY] chancellor, [Jim Malatras,] resigned. And I would say that between about Dec. 15 to Jan. 15, SUNY leadership was very thin [because of that]. So, I don’t think anyone at SUNY was trying to clarify what the governor had said.”
The governor’s announcement was also unclear on the definition of “faculty,” creating confusion for UUP leaders, according to Kat Kielar, vice president for professionals of UUP’s Buffalo Center Chapter. UUP represents non-faculty professionals as well, but all union employees are subject to the same rules, including vaccine mandates.
“I have to give her [Hochul] the benefit of the doubt; she’s new to that role,” Kielar said. “But at the same time, discussion with unions is important.”
Hochul’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Holly Liapis, a SUNY spokesperson, did not respond to specific questions from The Spectrum. But she said SUNY is working to implement the mandate.
“All faculty will be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19,” Liapis said in an email to The Spectrum. “We are working closely with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations and our partners in labor on implementing the mandates.”
UUP passed a resolution Jan. 27 calling for “negotiations with New York State and SUNY to determine the implementation of a systemwide vaccine requirement for UUP employees and that this mandate assures all employees remain protected for due process during any disciplinary actions resulting from such a mandate.”
UUP’s Buffalo Health Sciences Chapter’s leadership unanimously voted to endorse the resolution.
“If a vaccine mandate is negotiated at the state level, UB will implement [it], as of any effective date, by requiring subject employees to upload proof of vaccination and booster to a centralized UB Human Resources database,” the university said in an email to The Spectrum. “Non-compliant employees would be subject to corrective action, as provided in the UUP collective bargaining agreement.”
But Glick and UUP’s Buffalo Health Sciences Chapter tried to take matters into their own hands. In a meeting with UB’s Employee Relations office, which acts as a liaison between the university and its unions, Glick proposed that the Health Sciences Chapter and UB enter negotiations to implement a “carve-out” vaccine mandate, which would only require members of the HSC to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
“Buffalo HSC is only about 1,000 people, but it’s 1,000 more” that are required to be vaccinated, Glick said.
Such a mandate would require approval from UB, statewide UUP and SUNY.
“Local, campus-specific agreements are not allowed under our collective bargaining agreement with the state unless all parties to that contract agree,” Lisi said. “UUP is working on a systemwide vaccine mandate agreement.”
Jackie Orchard, a SUNY spokesperson, did not respond to requests for comment on the Health Science Chapter’s proposal. But comments from UB appeared to dampen plans for a local mandate.
“Leadership is aware of the proposal; however, UB was not provided local authorization to negotiate a booster requirement,” the university said. “Local negotiation of any term/condition of employment for represented employees must be approved in advance by GOER. In the case of the faculty requirement, it is currently being discussed at the state level and, thereby, off limits for local negotiation.
“Ninety percent of UB employees have uploaded proof of vaccination. About 50% have uploaded proof of a booster, and the university is actively urging employees to upload proof if they’re also boosted and/or get a booster shot as soon as they are time eligible.”
UB employees are required to disclose their vaccination status to the university. Unvaccinated employees with a “regular physical presence” on campus are currently required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
Grant Ashley is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Ashley is the editor in chief of The Spectrum. He's also reported for WBFO, WIVB and The Buffalo News. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on the platform formerly known as Twitter at @Grantrashley.