Ithaca, N.Y. — The president of a union that represents over 1,000 Cornell employees is criticizing the university’s decision to remain open and hold classes during Monday’s storm, which dumped about 10 inches of snow on the Ithaca area.

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“It really does leave (the workers) in a position where they feel they have no choice but to go to work,” says Terry Sharpe, president of United Auto Workers Local 2300, which represents Cornell maintenance staff, cafeteria workers and other employees.

Sharpe said that workers’ safety should be the overriding priority, and that asking staff to come in — even while allowing them to use a vacation day off — could put that safety at risk. (Ithaca College was also open Monday and the subject of similar criticisms online.)

“I know it’s a cost for them if they have to close the university down, but I think people’s lives and livelihoods are more important than those costs,” Sharpe said. “People should not be out on these roads driving.”

All photos in this story are by Zac Peterson, Ithaca Voice photographer and Patriots fan

The National Weather Service warned against unnecessary travel, issuing a winter storm warning that called for motorists to only use the roads in the event of an emergency. (The warning has since been lifted.)

Over 50 percent of workers in the union live outside of Ithaca, according to Sharpe.

Cornell’s response

In a statement, Cornell said that the university approves closings or delays “when conditions don’t allow for the safe operation of the Ithaca campus.”

“Careful attention is given to the expected intensity and duration of a storm in reaching a decision that impacts the university’s operating status. In this particular case, our crews have been able to stay ahead of the storm and have maintained the campus in operational status,” said the statement, from Kyu Jung Whang, vice president for Cornell’s facilities services.

“If the university remains open in adverse weather, all faculty, administrators, and staff will be expected to make reasonable efforts to maintain their regular work schedules, but are advised to avoid undue risks in traveling. Employees are asked to work with their supervisors to review options when travel to Cornell is affected by adverse weather.”

Whang also referenced “Cornell’s Inclement Weather Policy (Policy 8.2),” which states that employees “who cannot report to or cannot remain at work due to personal travel conditions when the university is open may charge the time off to health and personal leave or vacation; make up the time within the same workweek at the mutual convenience of the employee and the supervisor; or request leave without pay.”

Ithaca College’s take

A group of Ithaca College staff got on the phone for a conference call at 4 a.m. Monday morning. That call included members of the college’s public safety division, facilities, academics, communications and the chair of the CERT emergency response team. (Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly called the CERT team the CORE team.)

“Based on the situation we had, we made the decision to open with our normal operating schedule,” said David Maley, IC spokesperson.

Among the considerations? “We have to provide services to the community,” Maley said. “We have to provide essential services, no matter what the situation is.”

As with Cornell, Ithaca College staff who thought it would be dangerous to come into work could choose to take a vacation day off instead, Maley said. (TC3 was closed, along with the Ithaca City School District and local elementary/high schools.)

“Individuals have the discretion to make their own personal safety decisions,” Maley said.

“So it is up to the individual to decide what their situation is, and if … there’s a safety issue for them.”

See related: As snow storm intensifies, Ithaca residents rise for work — or get ready for bed

Students, others annoyed

Dozens of students on Twitter and Facebook bemoaned their schools’ decisions to remain open — some with concerns about safe travel, others apparently more concerned about  having to go to class.

Here’s a sampling from the grumblings, which ranged from a teasing tone to a more serious anger:

See related: Student offers Ithaca College yogurt, 4 beers to cancel classes in snow

A contingency plan for next time?

Pete Meyers, coordinator of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, said he also worried about the workers who had to come from counties away.

“It seems like it’s putting workers in a dangerous situation,” Meyers said.

Sharpe, of the UAW union, said she appreciated that Cornell does not discipline workers for failing to make it in and says she recognizes that there are critical functions the university’s staff must maintain even in a storm.

But she said there are many workers — particularly in the dining halls — who don’t have vacation days to use and won’t be able to make up the time. (Why that’s the case is complicated and may be the subject of another story.)

Sharpe also said she hopes the university can work toward a more flexible plan for workers who come from far away, or have to drive through treacherous roads, before the next major snowstorm.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.