Source: McMaster Facebook page

We are writing from the edges of an ongoing battle for equity, wellbeing, and justice. In an open letter to College administrators on August 7, 2020, a leadership group of College of Charleston faculty explained, “growing concerns about COVID-related disruptions on instructional faculty and staff, particularly women and employees of color who are disproportionately and differentially impacted by the effects of the pandemic.” 

We urged campus leaders to prioritize equity when making all COVID-19-associated decisions.

We are now calling on state officials to do the same. We welcome the public to join us in this call. 

Tamara Butler (left), Kris De Welde | Photos provided

In her 2020 op-ed, health equity scholar Lauren R. Powell called us to examine the web of COVID-19 and racism that we are living in. Dr. Ebony Hilton is rallying for a “Secretary of Equity” who would “serve as a catalyst to initiate equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) assessments and policies while leveraging best practices and resources across various federal agencies.” As medical professionals and advocates urge for changes at the federal level, we continue calling for action in the Palmetto State.

Gov. Henry McMaster, in his March 5 Executive Order 2021-12, has required a “return to normal operations” for all state agencies, which includes the College. There are two ways of thinking about the “return to normal” order. First, explicit consideration of gender inequities did not occur to McMaster and his staff. This is negligence.

Second, McMaster and his aides considered the disproportionate impacts of this policy, yet chose to forge ahead with decisions that result in people — mostly women — having to choose between their jobs, their health and their families. This is discrimination. 

In its March 30 demand for McMaster to rescind or delay the “return to normal” order, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina (ACLU) emphasizes that the order violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the South Carolina Human Affairs Law. 

As the ACLU further notes, and mounting research demonstrates, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacts women and caregivers, and especially those who are also Black, Latine and/or Indigenous. Although more people are being vaccinated, distribution and availability are uneven, and it is uncertain whether pregnant and breastfeeding people should seek vaccines. Positive cases are rising again. The governor’s intractability in not issuing a statewide mask mandate means that any “return to normal” is reckless.

“Essential workers” who are majority women, Black and Latine, and at the lower ends of pay scales with reduced access to health care, are doubling as “disposable workers” given the imperative for many of them to return to work without appropriate PPE, vaccines or other supports to make work possible. 

Resulting from decades of women’s workforce participation being mediated by the interacting factors of caregiving constraints, unequal pay, gender stereotypes, diminished opportunities and lack of affordable and quality childcare, the majority of clerical, secretarial, administrative and support staffers across state agencies, including at our workplace and other colleges and universities are women. Many are Black and Latine.

At the College of Charleston, staff and faculty employees are tasked with working individually with their supervisor on issues regarding caregiving responsibilities. Last week, President Andrew Hsu encouraged struggling caregivers to contact his office personally. Though well-intentioned, piecemeal approaches continue to increase inequalities and inequities. We urge the College to be proactive, creative and equitable in developing long-term solutions to the gendered, racialized and caregiving challenges that are critically relevant.

Consider the College employee with four children enrolled in virtual school who now has to choose between defying the order and risking job loss or forking over thousands of dollars per week to hire external childcare (assuming they can find it). Meanwhile, she has been meeting all of her job responsibilities remotely for over a year.

Think about the asthmatic single mother who lives with her immunocompromised parent, both unable to obtain a vaccine until this week. She cares for an elementary-aged child who also suffers from asthma and who is in virtual school to safeguard their multi-generational household. In McMaster’s view, her situation lies outside of ADA accommodations and is not grounds for continuing to telecommute.

The S.C. Conference of the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) statement, pending to be ratified by the College’s faculty senate, documents other ways the order contradicts “the CDC and the SC OSHA guidance for Workplace Re-Entry (5/14/2020), and [thus] runs counter to the General Duty Clause of the South Carolina Code of Regulations §71-112A,” which mandates that “employers shall maintain a place of employment which is free of recognized hazards which may cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

We support the ACLU in urging Gov. McMaster to rescind or delay the “return to normal” order until more equitable measures are taken — access to vaccines and PPE, affordable child and parent care, safe working conditions and more flexible work options. We encourage the public to join the growing chorus of protest against this premature and discriminatory order. 

We close with the words of the late warrior poet Audre Lorde, who declared that at “the edge of each other’s battle the war is the same.” She calls us to recognize that we are fighting to live in a world plagued by racism, gender discrimination, classism and more in the midst of a global pandemic. “If we lose,” Lorde warns, “someday women’s blood will congeal on a dead planet.” Yet, she reminds and encourages us: “But if we win, there is no telling.” 

Tamara Butler is executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at College of Charleston and serves as associate dean of strategic planning and community engagement for College of Charleston Libraries.

Kris De Welde is director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at College of Charleston.