COVID-19: UCSD Transportation Department Faces New Challenges Amidst Pandemic

This article was written and researched by The UCSD Guardian Editor-in-Chief Daisy Scott and News Co-Editor Andrew Ha, and is a part of our news series on the COVID-19 pandemic. For information on how to prevent the spread of the virus, click here.

UC San Diego student campus transportation workers have requested hazard pay and improved departmental communication due to concerns surrounding working amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. These demands come after ridership dramatically decreased with the transition to online classes for Spring Quarter 2020. As a result, the department has also reduced available shuttle service since March 30. 

Two student campus transportation workers contacted The UCSD Guardian with an email they sent to their supervisors, claiming that they had not received sufficient sanitization supplies in a timely manner and expressing concerns over an alleged 15-hour restriction placed on student workers’ hours. Both students requested anonymity due to fear of retribution.   

Since the California stay-at-home order was enacted in Week 9 of Winter Quarter 2020, the student workers alleged that they have struggled to get a sufficient amount of supplies to ensure the sanitation of their workspaces. They claimed that it was not until Week 2 of  Spring Quarter 2020 did student workers get the necessary supplies. According to the student workers, career drivers––or non-student shuttle drivers––were allegedly prioritized by transportation leadership. 

“Career drivers were given Clorox wipes, masks, and gloves, but by midday when all the supervisors left, there was nothing left [for the 7 student workers] but the gloves… [The Supervisor] locked extra Clorox wipes in their office,” one of the students workers said. It was only very recently [at the beginning of week 2] that we got supplies.”

The UCSD Guardian reached out to Transportation Services for comment regarding these claims.  University Communications and Public Affairs responded by stating that Transportation Services had introduced various sanitation practices on March 4. They stated that the protocol has been to sanitize bus interiors daily and clean high-touch-surfaces throughout the day. The University also said that they provided protective equipment for employees to use each workday. 

“When service resumed after spring break, additional measures were added [including] reducing service and transitioning drivers to telework or paid leave to support social distancing on campus and support the stay at home order; limiting rides to essential trips and individuals with university ID; boarding passengers only through the rear door to physically distance drivers from passengers; and limiting boarding and taping off seats to enforce social distancing among passengers,” UCSD Associate Communications Director Leslie Sepuka said.

The student workers also claimed that during spring break, Transportation Services gave all student workers 15 hours of online shifts, or telework, on top of their physical shifts. Although they alleged that they were able to get more than 15 hours that week, Transportation Services allowed 15 hours of telework only if workers did not have any physical shifts beginning in Week 1 of Spring Quarter. 

“The ability to pick up shifts beyond 15 hours is not limited, but supervisors must manage the overall cost and give priority to those who do not have 15 hours of on-site work,” Sepuka said. “The university is also pursuing opportunities for telework wherever possible. Hazard pay will not be provided, but Transportation Services will continue to meet or exceed the recommended practices for workplace safety during COVID-19.”

As per Transportation Services Director Josh Kavanaugh’s email to student workers on March 20, the department promised to grant a minimum of 15 hours per week for each student before others are allowed to work more. The student workers expressed concern at this protocol, alleging that in practice it led to their supervisors capping work at 15 hours a week instead. Student shuttle drivers are paid $17 per hour, indicating that under a 15-hour restriction, the maximum a student could make is $255 a week. 

“During a [normal] quarter we are allowed to go up to 35 hours per week,” one of the student workers said. “Anything above 35 and we would have to get approval from the supervisor. [Many students] max out at 35 hours, because it is expensive to live here. Now that they are limiting us to 15 hours, even if you do driving shifts, it doesn’t help. It doesn’t pay anything. It doesn’t pay any bills.” 

On Friday, April 10, UCSD Shuttles Leadership, which consists of the departments’ student dispatchers and trainers, sent an email to Shuttle Services Manager Raymond Wampler and supervisors Kenneth Wilson and Ione Tite. The email outlined shuttle drivers’ specific requests and questions, beginning with hazard pay. This request derived from student workers’ concerns about driving shuttles before the distribution of masks and disinfectant spray, even with the reduced shuttle services schedule. 

“Only recently did we establish a general sanitation policy for all of our buses and offices and   additionally a policy on using masks and gloves in the office and when on route,” the email claimed. “We were essentially driving buses (with few passengers) but nonetheless with passengers with absolutely no protection. In my opinion, that counts as a need for hazard pay.”

The email also pointed out that most shuttle drivers working on campus are students, while the majority of managerial staff work remotely. The student workers alleged that this practice contributed to departmental miscommunication, and requested increased supervisor presence to ensure better guidance. 

“This lack of physical representation and leadership in the office leads to a confusing and tedious workplace,” the email stated. “ It’s clear that our daily operations can function smoothly without supervisor presence, but with the number of calls and questions from employees and customers that we get daily, it becomes difficult for us to give the same answer.”

Student workers also alleged a lack of clear communication regarding administrative leave options, specifically regarding their ability to resume their usual shift schedules once they had used up all of their leave hours. They also expressed concern over whether or not their allotted administrative leave hours would renew with the beginning of UCSD Summer Session classes, which will also be held remotely. The email concluded with requests for clarification on the number of in-person hours employees would be allowed to work in addition to telework. 

Kavanaugh responded to student workers on April 12 by sending a department-wide email. He announced three upcoming opportunities for “Student Staff Roundtables” via Zoom, when student workers will be able to voice their concerns. There were also Zoom links to recreational events for Transportation Services employees, including “Team Trivia,” a “Virtual Scavenger Hunt,” and “Talent Show and Scholarship Drawing.” 

“Participation in any of the above sessions may be paid time; however, all work must be approved by supervisors in advance,” Kavanugh’s email read. “For our student staff members, participation will count toward the 15 hours of work opportunity that we’ve committed to providing. That means that participation may result in a reduction in scheduled hours whether those are for traditional work, remote work, or online training.”

According to an email to transportation workers on April 9, Kavanaugh explained that student workers could be given prorated administrative leave as a third option beyond physical or telework shifts. Administrative leave would permit students workers to not hold shifts but still get paid. Those who work 49 percent of a full-time worker, which is most student workers, would be able to be awarded 62.72 hours of admin leave this quarter. 

At this time, student drivers have not sent additional emails or requests to the Transportation Services department. The UCSD Guardian will continue to monitor any further developments with this story. 

Illustration by Yui Kita for the UCSD Guardian.