How We Got Here: Pandemic Support for Mills Workers

Mills Staff Unite
6 min readFeb 18, 2021

The Mills Staff Union defends Oakland workers’ legal rights and wins additional pandemic protections in its negotiations with the College.

A view of Mills Hall, the administrative building, from the perspective of the Mills Common. Photo: Phil Bond

When Mills staff voted last March in overwhelming support of forming a union, few could have predicted that one short week after our union was won, the Bay Area would become the first region in the United States to announce a shelter-in-place mandate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the closure of much of civil society and the rise of the coronavirus, the state of play for workers and unionists at the College changed overnight.

Workers at Mills shifted the modality of the College on a dime to enable remote learning for Mills students; staff who could perform their jobs from the safety of their homes were instructed to do so until further notice; those who would continue reporting to campus scrambled to find personal protective equipment (PPE) — and in this effort staff and students both were supported by Mills alums who organized a mask-making campaign to support the campus community. College leadership, meanwhile, grappled with ever-evolving public health advisories and little to no guidance from the federal government on protocols for promoting workplace safety during a pandemic.

In the months that followed, the newly minted Mills Staff Union, organized with SEIU 1021, began negotiating for better workplace protections and additional support for workers coping with the tumult and personal health risks brought about by COVID-19. In January 2021, the Mills Staff Union’s bargaining team concluded these negotiations with the College. The workplace supports that the union negotiated on behalf of its membership include key priorities of the bargaining team. Among those priorities are the following wins:

  1. No frontline workers (i.e. those staff who regularly report to campus) will be compelled to draw on their personal leave balances to cover COVID-19-related quarantines.
  2. Additional compensation will be provided to Mills’ essential frontline workers who continue to report to campus as an acknowledgment of the additional risk they face in doing so.
  3. A child care benefit provided by the College permitting employees to use one hour per day to provide care for dependents will be expanded to also include elder care to support staff caretakers.

Other stipulations in the Letter of Understanding agreed to by the Union and the College include commitments from the College to provide PPE to those working on campus as well as necessary equipment to those working remotely.

The College also committed to following laws passed by local and state governments around paid leave for COVID-19 absences. This came after the College was found to be in violation of a local Oakland law mandating that employers provide additional paid time to their workers for COVID-19 absences. Mills workers who used personal time — sick leave, vacation, or other time off — are entitled to reimbursement of their leave balances if they used any time between March 2020 to December 2020 for COVID-19 absences.

How did we get here?

Oakland Emergency Paid Sick Leave

After four confirmed cases of COVID-19 surfaced on campus, three of which were reported by staff, negotiations for better pandemic protections gathered steam. The question of how staff would cover COVID-19 absences — if they fell sick, suspected themselves to have been exposed, or were caring for an ill family member — was raised during a staff town hall last summer. Human Resources responded that such cases would be handled on a “case-by-case” basis.

Sensing inequity in this approach, the Mills Staff Union began work to press for a cogent and uniform policy for COVID-19 leave: It was unclear if staff would have to use their own leave balances or even go on to unpaid medical leave should they contract COVID-19 or need to care for a family member with the coronavirus. During this research process, the Union’s bargaining team discovered that a local law, the Oakland Emergency Paid Sick Leave, compelled Oakland employers like Mills to provide their workers with up to two weeks of additional paid sick leave.

Because the College had not communicated this right nor provided this benefit to its employees, the bargaining team brought the law to the attention of the College and the College’s lawyer during two bargaining sessions, first in October and again in November. Following inaction on the heels of the November meeting, the Union sent an email to the College urging them to comply with the law “as a matter of course, not as a point of negotiation with the Union” and to notify Mills staff of their rights under the law.

Weeks later, on December 18 — seven months after the ordinance was first passed and two weeks before it was set to expire — the College sent an all-staff email informing workers of the ordinance and inviting them to apply for retroactive reimbursement for any personal leave time they may have used to cover any of the COVID-19-related absences outlined by the ordinance. This communication came two days after a Union member reported the College to city and state agencies for noncompliance.

Staff who have used their personal leave time to cover one of any of the COVID-19-related absences covered by the Oakland law can still request reimbursement of their leave balances through Human Resources. For a full list of eligible reasons, which include personal sickness and child and dependent care, see pages 6–7 of this FAQ. Those who wish may also file a complaint with the city for the abrogation of their rights.

Pandemic Letter of Understanding

Separate but parallel to holding the College accountable to Oakland workers’ rights as defined by the law, the Mills Staff Union also negotiated a Letter of Understanding with the College for additional pandemic-related protections and compensation.

As a result of those negotiations, concluded in January, the College has since agreed that no frontline workers will be required to use personal leave time to cover College-directed quarantines for COVID-19 (see section III.1.c of the COVID-19 Return-to-Work Policy).

Also as a result of negotiations, a childcare benefit that the College extended in October 2020 — which permitted staff to take up to one hour per day from their workday to provide childcare — has been expanded and extended to include elder care as well. Human Resources rolled out the childcare benefit based off of the feedback they received from a questionnaire they adapted from a survey submitted to them by the Mills College Staff Council. It was also the Staff Council who, in a meeting with the Union, suggested that the bargaining team negotiate the extension of the benefit to include dependent elders. Now staff may take one hour per work day to care for children or elders in their household.

Finally, the Mills Staff Union negotiated for a second round of one-time pay stipends for Mills frontline workers. The first round of these stipends was announced in an October 2020 policy, after the Union submitted its first draft of proposals to the College. Among the Union’s proposals was hazard pay for frontline workers. The College’s legal counsel has resisted the term “hazard pay” but both the 2020 and 2021 stipends for Mills frontline workers are issued in acknowledgment of the added personal risk they assume by reporting to campus during a pandemic.

The first round of these stipends, paid out last fall, covered the period from March 2020 to June 2020. The second round will cover the period from July 2020 to December 2020. If you reported to campus regularly during these time periods, you are eligible for this compensation and should consult your supervisor if you have any questions about your payment. The College has committed to considering additional rounds of this stipend as the pandemic progresses, and the Union’s bargaining team will continue to negotiate for compensation that is commensurate with the risk workers are taking on.

What Next?

The Pandemic Letter of Understanding has been a prelude to the Union’s next order of business: to negotiate the Union’s first contract — or collective bargaining agreement (CBA) — with the College. Two chief priorities of the bargaining team in these negotiations will be to address persistent pay equity issues at Mills and to advocate for staff in relation to the UC Berkeley partnership.

We want just policy, transparency, and a seat at the decision-making table for staff. We also want your ideas: What are your concerns about your workplace? What would bring more joy to your work? Please join us for chapter meetings, talk to your colleagues about the Union, complete any surveys we send, and volunteer if you can to help support Union business. Every contribution from every worker is valued. With your help, we will continue fighting for what’s fair.

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Mills Staff Unite

Mills College staff formed a union with SEIU 1021. Join us to make Mills a more equitable and sustainable place for staff and the students we serve.