Open Letter | UA workers demand equity and transparency in vaccine distribution

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To the University of Alabama Community:

The United Campus Workers of Alabama wish to address the inequities in the University of Alabama’s vaccine rollout process. While the University offered early vaccinations for faculty (regardless of their actual working conditions), it did not prioritize vaccination access for large numbers of the community whose working conditions mandated regular face-to-face interaction. While acting with an extreme lack of transparency about vaccine priorities, the University has made false claims regarding the extent to which the vaccine effort has been expanded to most workers.

On March 12, 2021, a message was sent to the student body stating that “all eligible UA faculty and staff, contract workers with direct student interactions, and other qualifying populations have been offered the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine through the University Medical Center.” That same message stated that, according to Alabama state guidelines, essential student workers were also eligible for the vaccine and would be next to be offered a vaccine through the University. During this roll-out process, the qualifying conditions for who would receive a vaccine when were (and remain) opaque.

On April 1, 2021, 20 days later, another message was sent out claiming that all UA faculty and staff had been offered the COVID vaccine, and that the University was proceeding toward normal operations. This statement is misleading, failing to address populations like graduate student workers who had yet to be offered a vaccine through the University. While higher education employees—including those who are students—have been eligible to receive a vaccine since Jan. 29, the University has not provided these employees coherent access to vaccinations, and many report turning to available options at facilities outside the University system.

Relying on Tuscaloosa County public and private providers for vaccine access places undue pressure on our campus community—particularly our low-income workers, international students, graduate assistants and other essential, frontline employees who rely on the University of Alabama to provide timely access to healthcare. Many of these workers will not be present on campus throughout the summer and are facing travel constraints given the delay between vaccinations, and many will not have access to vaccinations or other essential healthcare outside of the University. If state mandates did not include graduate instructors or resident assistants, for example, within the purview of front-line educators, which encompasses “child care workers, K-12, community colleges, and all higher education institutions (teachers and support staff members),” according to Alabama’s 1b phasing plan, we need clear documented reasoning as to why they are excluded and a reconsideration of the categories of educator and staff to include student workers.

We demand that the University 1) provides public access to their vaccine roll-out plans from their inception, and 2) ensures that these plans are transparent and equitable moving forward by forming committees that represent workers across diverse sectors of the campus. Such efforts will help provide needed support for the vulnerable, low-paid, and precarious workers that are so essential to the healthy functioning of the campus.

UCW Local 3965 is the University of Alabama’s chapter of the United Campus Workers of Alabama. You can reach them at alabama@ucw-cwa.org.