Pitt faculty union, administration clash over lifting mask mandate


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

A Pitt student wears a mask.

By Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer

The United Steelworkers union filed an unfair practices charge against Pitt on Friday, alleging that University administrators failed to consult faculty before announcing that campus buildings would go mask optional starting Monday, according to a Friday evening press release from the Steelworkers.

Representatives from Pitt’s faculty union — which officially formed in October and began contract negotiations last month — are now calling on Pitt officials to reverse course on dropping the mask mandate and work with faculty to adjust COVID-related safety protocols. The request marks the first time that the new union has taken public action on a workplace issue. 

But the unfair practices charge will not force Pitt to alter its policy, and a University spokesperson said the changes will begin Monday as planned.

“We have not yet seen the Union’s complaint,” Pitt spokesperson David Seldin said. “The mask requirement changes will continue to go into effect on Monday in alignment with current [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance.”

Even though the CDC designates Pitt’s campuses as low or medium risk areas, faculty union bargaining committee members said the decision was premature and could put immunocompromised faculty, staff and students at risk. The faculty union proposed giving individual professors discretion to set masking policies in their classrooms, labs and offices, according to the press release, but Pitt didn’t not alert the union to the change in time for faculty union representatives to challenge it.

“As researchers and educators, we understand as well as anyone that our response to the pandemic must evolve to meet our current needs,” Melinda Ciccocioppo, a lecturer in the psychology department, said. “But rather than working together to find constructive solutions, the administration chose to take a hardline approach.”

Robin Kear, the Faculty Assembly president, said no one from union leadership reached out to her with concerns about dropping the mask mandate, and she’s not present for discussions between union representatives and the administration.

“I think that many faculty are ready to have individual mask choice in the classroom, and that has been expressed to me,” Kear said. “I also think that there are faculty who are anxious about this change.”

Kear added that if anyone has a medical condition that requires accommodation, they should reach out to the Office of Disability Resources and Services to discuss it.

The University said in its Monday announcement that community members are welcome to wear face coverings if they so choose, and officials could revisit the masking changes if community COVID-19 transmission rates change.