Text of email from Ben Plumpton to members 27 March 2020
Many of you will have been working at home for a week or longer. These are challenging times, and you might feel you are struggling with too much to do, juggling different responsibilities, health issues, practical problems or mental health. Many of us are caring for children or other family members, and that needs to be the priority. Try not to let work get you down, do what you can, and be kind to yourself. I hope that we as union members can support each other with some of this, and that our solidarity can help us to feel less alone and less worried. If there is anything you think the union could help with please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Welcoming the start of constructive progress on Covid-19-related issues
On Wednesday 25 March we had a more productive meeting with university HR managers which indicated that the university senior management is starting to listen to some of the serious issues staff have been raising through UCU, Unison and Unite unions and through their managers.
There is a lot still where the decisions are yet to be made, which is understandable given the fast-moving situation, but we have moved on from the ridiculous situation last week where the senior management was refusing to stop teaching face to face, suggesting our reps were motivated by emotion not science, and saying they were too busy to consult trade unions on decisions. We now seem to have a shared aim of trying to get things sorted out as well as possible.
We hope things will continue to improve as senior management recognise the hard work and good will staff are demonstrating in working hard to support students and the university, despite the absolute refusal to spread or waive the strike deductions as other more progressive universities have done.
*** Important: The university’s coronavirus page, and the Staff FAQs page on that site, are updated frequently. Some of this email could be out of date by the time you read it, so please check the site if you have specific issues or queries.
2. Workload and work-life balance
After the mistake of insisting people move straight to online teaching and work with no break for people to learn new systems and prepare their materials for the new format, and some initial bad messaging, the “Staff FAQs” page has been updated to include, under the section about school closures: “We know that for those of you with children or other caring responsibilities this is a daily balancing act and you’re unlikely to be able to work exactly as you would from campus” and “What is key is that you work as best you can in your individual circumstances and that your line manager supports you to do your best, allowing for the fact that we’re all unlikely to be able to work exactly as we would from campus.”
HR senior management have been clear with us that this should not be interpreted to mean staff with children are expected to fit in our normal workload in the evening when we’ve finished the home schooling and childcare. It should be interpreted to mean we’re unlikely to be able to do the same amount of work as we would on campus. We recommend members have those discussions with their line managers, heads of schools or services on the basis that the university’s expectation is we will do what work we can in the circumstances.
We expect the same consideration for staff with other caring responsibilities, and also that managers should take into account practical issues affecting work such as bad internet connections, longer preparation time because of the new format, or needing to take regular long breaks because of not having proper office equipment or setup.
It is our understanding from HR that the university senior management approves this sort of practical, pragmatic approach to the current situation. So if your line manager or head of school or service is not taking that approach, please contact email@example.com so that we can talk you through the options of what to do next. It’s likely that we’ll need to contact HR, but we can work out with you whether it’s best to do this anonymously (for example, if a manager appears to be treating a whole team unfairly) or whether it is something that is just affecting you.
We are hearing reports of school and service leadership showing real compassion and flexibility and working very hard themselves to support staff and students, and we thank them.
3. AAMs, SRDS and other non-essential meetings
We have asked for non-essential meetings such as AAMs and SRDS to be postponed for the time being. We’re waiting for a response from senior management.
4. Mental health support
The university has told us they’ve put additional resource into staff counselling, which is very welcome. The best way to arrange an appointment is to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The service also has a page of online resources with Covid-19 situation in mind at wsh.leeds.ac.uk/info/134/staff_counselling_and_psychological_support
As an alternative, UCU members can contact Education Support day or night to talk, for advice, and to arrange telephone counselling appointments.
5. If you become ill
You no longer need to provide a doctor’s note (‘fit note’) but you should fill in a return to work form when you are well enough to work again. See https://coronavirus.leeds.ac.uk/staff-advice/staff-frequently-asked-questions/#ill_with_symptoms
6. IT equipment
IT staff are working incredibly hard to support the move to home working, and we are most grateful. They are arranging to get as many laptops and PCs as they can to staff who need one and don’t have one at home. These are being prioritised to begin with according to whether people are essential to keep the students living on campus safe, payroll running, and other essential roles. If you don’t have suitable equipment you need to speak to your line manager or head of school or service in the first instance. (You can’t be expected to do the work if you don’t have the equipment.)
The campus trade unions asked for the university to allow staff to volunteer for the NHS or in the community. We’re pleased to say that this is now agreed, see https://coronavirus.leeds.ac.uk/volunteering/ (you will need the agreement of your Head of School or Service).
8. Fixed-term contracts
Recruitment across the HE sector is grinding to a halt, so making anyone redundant now is very likely putting them into poverty. We have asked if all fixed-term contracts can be continued until recruitment resumes in the sector.
UCU has asked UKRI to alter deadlines and relax reporting rules, and amend funding, in order to support fixed term and early career staff. We understand many HE institutions including Leeds are also contacting UKRI about this.
9. Strike deductions and Strike Fund/Hardship Fund claims
March payslips are now online, accessed either via Desktop Anywhere and then browse to ESS at https://selfservice.mais.leeds.ac.uk/, or directly by using the Self Service icon on https://access.leeds.ac.uk/ before you go into Desktop Anywhere. If you get an error message, that’s because there are still capacity issues – the best times to try are early morning or late afternoon. As expected, for most staff the strike deductions have all come out in March. If you were unable to report your strike action before 20 March, then some of the deductions will come out in April. If you haven’t yet been able to report (e.g. if you were on holiday or sick or had connection problems), and if you can’t access ESS now, then email email@example.com and a helpful person from HR will get back to you.
Please claim to the UCU Strike fund and our local Hardship Fund if you need to. Full information at http://www.leedsucu.org.uk/hardship-applications-and-surgeries/, including a claim form to download for our local Hardship Fund, plus a link to the national Strike Fund claims web pages. If you didn’t claim for the November/December strike action and now wish you had, you can still apply. Both nationally and locally we will be processing applications as quickly as we can. NB If you took strike action in November/December and also in February/March, for the second period you can claim from day 1. If you have any queries after checking the above web pages, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Home Office has announced that visas can be extended (to 31 May) for those currently unable to return home at the end of their visa due to COVID-19. See https://www.gov.uk/government/news/visas-extended-for-those-currently-unable-to-return-home-due-to-covid-19 In light of the current advice on self-isolation and social distancing, the Home Office is also waiving attendance requirements, so that sponsors such as universities don’t need to report absences from students or employees sponsored under Tier 2, Tier 4, or Tier 5, where those absences have been the result of the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak.
We understand that REF2021 has been put on hold until further notice. This means the November submission deadline will no longer apply, although the REF staff census date (31 July 2020) remains unchanged. See https://www.ref.ac.uk/publications/further-update-on-coronavirus-covid-19-and-ref-timetable/
12. Some practical tips
Here are a few of the ideas UCU committee have found useful about working from home. Feel free to use, adapt or ignore!
- Keep your to-do list flexible. With increased reasons for anxiety, and friends and family in need of support, we can only do so much.
- It can be helpful to switch off work notifications outside of your working hours (eg emails, Teams – see how to do this for Teams), and perhaps to shut down your work device when you’re not working rather than leaving it on and ‘seeing’ work constantly.
- Don’t feel pressure to respond to emails at all hours because your manager or colleagues are working then. If your work pattern means you work at unusual hours, you can save emails as drafts and send them later, or if you are using Outlook software you can usually schedule an email to be sent at a later time.
- It’s extra important to take breaks if you haven’t got a proper office-style setup at home. Move regularly! It can be hard to make yourself stop (I am rubbish at this…) but it helps to avoid backache etc.
- A lot of online meetings (Teams, Zoom etc) can be a strain on the eyes. When you aren’t speaking, you can listen in with your microphone and camera off whilst focusing on something else (looking out of the window, a pet, knitting etc).
- You could use online groups from strike days (eg WhatsApp, Facebook) to keep in touch and support each other, or set up online tea breaks with friends.
If you have a teaching role, or have been working flat out to get things ready for everyone working off campus, I hope things calm down a bit soon. I know so many of our members have been working incredibly hard – your committment to students and colleagues has been fantastic. Official advice from your union (!): it’s important to look after yourself as well as everything else. It’s OK to slow down, and it’s OK to tune out when you need to.
If you or a friend or relative is or has been unwell, I hope you or they make a swift and full recovery.
Best wishes for the weekend and the weeks ahead,
University of Leeds UCU President