Roundup use on campus comes with legal complications and concerns about worker safety
A stock image of a worker spraying commercial Roundup on weeds growing between the cracks on a walkway.

Roundup use on campus comes with legal complications and concerns about worker safety

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By Nickolas Steinig and Sophia Brown

This article is the second in a two-part series about the use of Roundup on campus. Read the first article that focuses on protest by former and current students, as well as controversial practices for its use confidentially revealed by employees of the school here.

Following last week’s investigation of Physical Plant’s Roundup usage for groundskeeping at New College, a litany of questions remained for each one answered. Are workers being provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to shield them from the chemical? What mechanisms are in place to protect employees who attempt to push back against these practices? How many are willing to come forward and how would they be treated? Some students and employees implied that the actions of the Physical Plant may not even be legal. If true, this would potentially lead to grave financial penalties for New College and serious repercussions for the administrators implicated. For the most part, legal justifications were provided for the Physical Plants use of Roundup on campus—with some notable exceptions. 

In order to possess and apply pesticides and herbicides in commercial or public spaces, one must acquire certification and training from the state. There are a number of different certifications available, each related to specific settings and usages.

“The College Grounds Supervisor, Ken Harris, holds the appropriate state license for [the use of Roundup], the Limited Lawn and Ornamental Certification license,” Associate Director of Physical Plant Curtis Davis wrote in a response detailing Physical Plant policy. 

While some disputed whether the Limited Lawn and Ornamental Certification permits the spraying of areas outside of ornamental flower beds, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) documentation outlining pesticide usage and certification did not specifically forbid its use outside of flower beds. 

Since Harris is the only member of Physical Plant currently spraying Roundup, it would appear their usage is within the legal jurisdictions provided by the state. However, one employee of the school, whose name is redacted for confidentiality, revealed that this hasn’t always been the case. They claimed that no one was certified to spray “for the vast majority of the time [they] have worked here.” Furthermore, until recently, groundskeepers other than Harris were being instructed to apply the chemical herbicide without certification. 

According to the employee, the shift occurred as a reaction to increased scrutiny from the student body, including both the official certification of Harris and the limiting of employees allowed to spray. The student protest third-year student Lillain Field helped organize outside of President Patricia Okker’s office on Oct. 15 was particularly impactful. 

“He told everyone to stop spraying [last week] after the fiasco with Lilly and the President came out,” the employee said. “They started seeing that people were paying attention, they started to backtrack.” 

While the Limited Lawn and Ornamental Certification may permit the application of Roundup for groundskeeping, that might not extend to usage close to bodies of water like the bayfront. The FDACS guidelines for the protection of water resources states that “one of the most important steps you can take to protect any water body is maintaining a waterside 10-foot ‘low-maintenance zone.’ One should not mow, fertilize, or use pesticides in this zone.” This echoes one of the chief complaints of students towards Physical Plant practices—the spraying of chemical herbicides along the impervious pathways and foliage at the bayfront. 

The employee contended that Physical Plant management was actively aware that the lack of employee certification and the spraying of the bay might not be in accordance with state regulations. In one instance, a member of Physical Plant management is alleged to have said that “the school will pay for any fines, so don’t worry about it.”

Another issue of particular concern was whether workers were being given adequate PPE for the application of chemical herbicide. The employee indicated that several workers have been requesting additional PPE for some time, but that their requests have not been met with any serious consideration by Physical Plant management.  

“We are supposed to have rubber gloves that go up to our sleeve,” the employee said. “The ones we have right now, it could go right through. We should have respirators because they were asking us to broad spray, just because of the amount of exposure to the spray. That’s the reason why we need the respirators. We should have splash guards, we have never had them. These have been requested several times, over many, many emails.” 

“We’re also supposed to have incidental PPE,” the employee later continued. “If something happens and we get it on our clothing, we have to be able to change those items or gloves or whatever, but we don’t have any of that stuff. Until probably last year, we didn’t even get eye rinse for if anything got in our eyes. And then at that time, we had some that was expired. Like, are you crazy? We need stuff here in our department that we can utilize, not something that’s expired for 10 years.” 

There’s an important distinction to be made here between the specific bargaining arrangements that staff and management make for PPE and the minimum legal requirements for PPE. After contacting a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency to confirm the required level of PPE for the general application of Ranger Pro—the Roundup product currently utilized at New College—the representative referred to the registration label for the product. This was the same label referenced by Davis in an explanation of their policy, which describes “long-sleeved shirt and long pants, shoes plus socks” as being the only PPE necessary for handlers. The PPE requirements for general herbicide application has continued to evolve over time, making it difficult to discern the exact protections necessary for members of Physical Plant.  

“PPE varies depending upon the toxicity of the pesticide,” Emeritus Professor of Biology at New College Elzie McCord said when asked for comment on the issue. “A general PPE list includes respirator, gloves, long sleeve Tyvek suits and rubber boots. Face Shields and goggles are optional unless the compound is highly toxic, and/or applied under drift or windy conditions. Before Glyphosate was linked to cancers, minimal PPE was required.”

“Glyphosate was considered one the safest herbicides for many decades because it is an analog of the plant hormone auxin,” McCord continued.  “In recent years, it has been linked to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and multiple myeloma cancers. Therefore, one should take all precautions when applying aerosolized spray and contacting plants and soil surfaces in treated areas.  After Glyphosate is absorbed into the plant, exposure is minimized.  However, exposure to dried soil and dust could potentially create respiratory contact.” 

In the midst of these various potential work hazards, one form of protection for employees of the school is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union. With branches across the country and a west coast of Florida representative stationed in Tampa, Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC) Administrative Assistant Marguerite Perretta-Cristiani is also the AFSCME union president on campus. 

Perretta-Cristiani explained that her role as union president involves making sure that employees are safe, receiving fair pay and filing grievances for larger issues. Grievances go to Human Resources (HR), and from there need to be addressed within a certain number of days.

“A lot of people that work on campus, they don’t know how the campus works,” Perretta-Cristiani said. “They may have been here for 10, 12 years, they’re still not sure how to navigate it when things happen in their world that’s a crisis for them. So I tell all of them, call me, I’ll walk you through it. I’ll tell you who to talk to, where to go and help you find whatever paperwork. It doesn’t matter what problem it is.”

AFSCME doesn’t cover all New College employees, particularly Administrative and Professional (A&P) positions. There are also several other more specialized unions—the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) and the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) being examples. 

Perretta-Cristiani said that dues-paying AFSCME members get priority when they contact her with an issue, but if a non-dues paying member reaches out with an issue that is “for the good of the many on campus, I will stand up for them.”

However, information that has reached Perretta-Cristiani as union president conflicts with testimonies from employees and students, largely in part because she claims that no employees have approached her with concerns. Perretta-Cristiani said that she believed that Harris has a license to use chemicals and insecticides, but does not know if this license grants him the ability to spray Roundup at the bay or the uplands. She also said that she knows that while the Physical Plant was paying for classes on spraying chemicals for ground workers, she could also not confirm if training dealing with Roundup specifically was administered.

“I always thought they were spraying for bugs,” Perretta-Cristiani admitted. “I didn’t know. That’s what I always assumed.”

The employee was able to confirm that the classes Perretta-Cristiani alluded to did occur, but they also explained that up to this point, workers have been hesitant to speak up or interact with AFSCME out of fear that they will lose their jobs, or that the union will not provide sufficient protection.

“They know what would happen,” the employee said, referring to workers on campus. “They understand that, okay, they’re not just going to fire you. But they don’t want to become a target. And when it’s time to give a deposition to Physical Plant about what happened? They will not say a single word. The grounds guys will not say a single word.”

“There’s so many opportunities for people in power to create instances,” the employee later continued. “They understand, ‘I don’t want to be in that position.’ And I’ve heard it from one in particular who talked about it. He has a couple of issues. He doesn’t know what he can do. He needs the insurance for his family, for himself. He has medical issues. What is he going to do if he loses his job? All the guys here are over 70, except for three. We got six guys. They don’t want to be involved.”

However, Perretta-Cristiani possesses a document containing a formal agreement between New College and AFSCME, including a series of “articles” which each address different concerns, such as wages and hours of work. She shared that New College’s branch is the first AFSCME union in any of the Florida state universities to have an article that demands an environment free from bullying and harassment, which can be used to protect whistleblowers and other employees with concerns about Roundup.

“If we feel that a whistleblower is being harassed or bullied or a supervisor or even other staff, they come to me and then we deal with it through HR and we work together to resolve the problem,” Perretta-Cristiani said. “Because if someone is doing any of those things to a whistleblower, they need to be called to task. That’s not okay, they’re telling the truth. These are the rules that we follow, and the college has to respect our rules because it’s a binding contract between the union and the college, just like the faculty union or the police union.”

“If this is going on, people should know,” Perretta-Cristiani later continued. “And people shouldn’t be spraying these toxic chemicals because it’s not good for them. You don’t know who’s going to sit over there or who’s going to ride their bike through it or things like that. We’re a small campus. But we do have means of protecting them [employees], we do have means of standing up for them. But there’s nothing wrong with telling the truth, if that’s what the truth is.”

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