GTFF August 2020 Covid Update for GEs

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The University of Oregon administration has finally made its long-awaited decision about campus reopening and has opted for primarily remote instruction for fall term. The decision is not surprising for those who have followed UO admin’s Covid response to date and have seen the severe problems that other universities experienced after attempting in-person reopening. Ultimately, the decision is the right one. However, the question of why UO admin waited so long to make it remains unanswered. As we have highlighted repeatedly in meetings with administration, maintaining an in-person posture for fall term during the past several months has sent a signal to students and other university constituents that they should be making plans for returning or moving to Eugene, despite the major threats to community safety that this poses.

Though the move to remote education for fall term gives a sense of relief in terms of the health and safety of graduate employees, students, and campus workers, it is crucial to recognize that some GEs, classified staff, and officers of administration (OAs) are already on campus and are facing immediate health and safety issues that UO admin has neglected because they have focused so much of their attention and energy on planning for a in-person return in fall. GEs currently working in labs, in particular, are dealing with unsafe conditions given uneven compliance with specific lab safety plans, lack of quarantine requirements when they or others return after travel, the failure of UO to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), and the failure to enforce masking and other safety protocols.

Heading into fall, UO libraries, the Rec Center, and Erb Memorial Union are expected to be open with modifications and safety measures, and on-campus housing and dining facilities will also be operational. Department buildings will also be accessible for faculty and graduate employees, among others. This level of operations, while much lower than in normal circumstances, points to the need for effective implementation of health and safety protocols that require further detail and clarity. 

Another term of remote education will likely have a major financial impact on the university, which could be felt the most by those in precarious positions such as classified staff, career faculty, and lower-level OAs. To mitigate the prospect of cuts that would disproportionately affect these workers as well as essential UO programs and services like the Labor Education and Research Center, GTFF is insisting that graduate employees, classified staff, and OAs be included in university financial planning through the UO’s Covid task force. 

The extension of remote education for fall term has many implications for graduate employees and other university constituents. Below are several key points of information directly related to GE circumstances:

Important Information

  • As many GEs have already experienced, remote work can pose significant logistical and work-related challenges that can lead to going over hours. Make sure to track your hours and to raise concerns about overwork to your supervisor and department steward. Here is a link to download a GE Hours Tracking Excel sheet to help you track hours, or you can use the online time-tracking program Clockify. We also highly recommend filling out a Workload Allocation Form with your supervisor at the very beginning of term. 
  • We expect that GEs will have access to their department buildings and office spaces. An online form will likely be made available for those who need to reserve a room or space to complete GE work. Those who plan to use shared GE offices are required to wear masks, maintain 6 feet of distance, and follow other UO protocols. 
  • In addition to standard accrued sick leave benefits (see GTFF Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), Article 29), GEs are entitled to an additional two weeks of Emergency Paid Sick Leave (see UO/GTFF Letter of Agreement). Emergency Paid Sick Leave should be used before using standard (contractual) paid sick leave so as to maintain your standard leave for future use when the Emergency Paid Sick Leave expires. Emergency paid sick leave can be used to care for sick or isolated family members as well as for childcare during school or daycare closures due to Covid.
  • Incoming international graduate students who are unable to obtain a visa or to travel to the US can still enroll in classes through the NoVisaNeeded program. Incoming international students who are present in the country will have to enroll in an in-person class even if they are not physically present in that class for every in-person meeting. They should be able to participate remotely in these in-person classes, but these courses are listed in the course schedule with both remote and in-person components.
  • International GEs who remain outside the country should receive appropriate accommodations from their departments. Departments are expected to make sure that these International GEs can perform all their assignments remotely and in accordance with different time zones and other realities of being abroad. International Student and Scholar Services and Human Resources representatives have confirmed that departments are obligated to make these accommodations and alternative working conditions available to their International GEs. Lack of compliance with these responsibilities should be reported to Employee and Labor Relations (uoelr@uoregon.edu) and supervising departments.
  • Admin has mentioned that they are looking into low-cost or free wireless internet services to assist with remote work circumstances. This is the current list of low-cost and free Internet options, and here is a link to the loaner laptop program for students.
  • GEs who need accommodations and ergonomic improvements for remote workspaces should continue to make requests through the ADA Coordinator (workplaceADA@uoregon.edu)  and through Occupational Health and Safety Services. These requests cannot be denied at the department level and have to go through Human Resources. It is unclear how the university will handle these requests, but we intend to work with the GTFF Disability Access Caucus (disabilityaccessgtff@gmail.com) to get more information and clarity and to do everything we can to ensure that all GEs have what they need to work from home.

Actions

Although UO will be primarily remote for fall term, we truly need everyone to be engaged and actively involved in our union at this time. Being able to collectively mobilize in creative, effective, and sometimes rapid ways will be crucial as we continue to strive for the safest possible conditions for GEs, campus workers, and students. Here are several action items initiated by our union and avenues for you to get involved:

  • GTFF has filed a Step 3 Grievance in response to unsafe working conditions experienced in summer term. The grievance requests UO to fulfill its obligations to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and paid training for all campus workers about safety protocols, enforcement procedures, and the right to a safe workplace. It also calls for weekly voluntary testing for all students and workers, including the availability of asymptomatic testing, enforcement of face covering protocols, and communication about positive Covid-19 cases that alert students about affected locations on campus.
  • The GTFF Covid Response Committee has been meeting throughout the summer to identify immediate health and safety issues, anticipate challenges for fall term, and to foster engagement among members around the pandemic. The Committee planned a series of open assemblies during the summer and will continue to coordinate and gather information. To learn more or to join the Committee, email COVID_Response@gtff.net.
  • GEs working in labs have already started organizing around health and safety concerns they are experiencing on campus. To get involved in these organizing efforts and other mobilizations, contact leadstewards@gtff.net or organizing@gtff.net
  • “Impact bargaining” with UO admin over changes in UO policies and practices affecting GE working conditions or otherwise impacting our contract (CBA) will likely be necessary in the near future. This process will likely involve the drafting of and negotiating over Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) and/or Letters of Agreement (LOAs) that will supplement or replace current contract language to ensure protections for GEs and prevent UO admin from making unilateral changes to GE pay, benefits, and/or working conditions. This effort may require the formation of a small team that can dedicate time to developing these MOUs. If you are interested in taking part, reach out to stafforganizer@gtff.net

The decision to have remote education only applies to fall term, which means that we will need to follow up about the timeline and process for UO admin’s decision-making about winter and spring terms. GTFF expects and will demand to be directly involved in UO decision-making regarding the rest of the academic year. If you have questions or concerns heading into fall term, contact your department stewards or reach out to the GTFF Covid Response Committee. [If your department has not yet held steward elections for next year, please contact your current (last year’s) stewards and/or contact stafforganizer@gtff.net to make plans to do so ASAP.]

As we navigate the next term, remember that you are not alone. Our union has been advocating for graduate employee health and safety at every turn since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have pushed for greater transparency in decision-making and accessibility of PPE and sanitizing and cleaning supplies, while also cautioning against harsh enforcement measures that could target students or workers. The best way to ensure health and safety is to have each other’s backs, to respond collectively, and to continue to coordinate with our union cousins and student allies on campus.

In the next few weeks, nearly 400 new GEs will arrive (in-person or remotely) at UO! We need to make sure we welcome them, talk with them about the issues discussed above, help them to settle in and make social connections, and encourage them to join and get involved in the GTFF. Be sure to talk to your colleagues about all of these issues and of the importance of maintaining a strong union in this complex, difficult, and uncertain time. Our union is our best defense in these moments.

In solidarity,

GTFF Covid Response Committee