Text of members email sent 16 March 2020 at 5.32pm.
I mentioned in my email on Friday that we were writing to the VC and asking for an urgent meeting about coronavirus. The letter we sent is below, and an equivalent statement is on our website. Along with the other campus trade unions, we met the VC and some of the senior management team at lunchtime today. We argued strongly that the university should close down, as far as possible and as soon as possible (ideally straightaway), both for the safety of staff and students and for public health reasons (the nature of a university means that infected people could spread the virus considerably). This is the national position of UCU also. We recognise of course that some students will need to stay on campus, and some staff will still need to come to work to support them and to run essential services. But the fewer people on campus, the lower the probability of infection, and the more likely the university is to be able to protect those staff. Chloe, Vicky and I represented UCU at this meeting, and were told we were being emotional over the public health risks, despite explaining epidemiological concerns and trying to convey the very serious concerns and worries of staff.
We were disappointed that the University management are nevertheless intending to continue with their plan, as announced on Saturday evening, of a gradual move to online teaching, and for non-teaching staff to continue to work as normal unless they were potentially at particular risk. We will continue to press the university to act more swiftly, and in the meantime to make arrangements for all staff to work at home wherever possible.
We raised many issues of concern in our letter and at the meeting. The Director of Human Resources committed to some important things at the meeting:
- That staff who have underlying medical conditions requiring them to work from home at this time do not need to provide any medical evidence, such as a GP note, in order to be allowed to do so.
- That staff who need to self isolate for whatever reason do not need to provide a GP certificate to do so or a fit note to return.
- That staff who are contracted to work for the university during any period when they are off sick or self isolating will be paid for any work they would have been doing. This includes hourly paid staff.
Please get in touch (email firstname.lastname@example.org) if your school or service management are not allowing you to work from home if you need to.
We will be meeting with HR on Wednesday to address many other practical issues, and meeting again with the VC on Thursday.
Update: whilst I was writing this, two things have happened:
- An all-staff email has gone out a few minutes ago saying that teaching should transition to online by 6 pm on Wednesday. We still believe there should be a pause, with staff working at home, in order to prepare for fully online teaching, but we are relieved that face to face teaching will cease more quickly than previously announced.
- The government has announced (see BBC news https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51917562) that:
- People should start working from home where they possibly can
- People should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues
- From tomorrow government will no longer be “supporting” mass gatherings using emergency workers.
At today’s meeting we asked that all staff should be encouraged to work at home wherever possible, including academic-related and support staff, and that any large gatherings or meetings should be cancelled, including visit days and visits by groups of schoolchildren. Now that this is official advice we hope that university management takes this seriously, along with our other concerns.
We’ll keep you in touch.
Pronouns: She/Her/HersUniversity of Leeds UCU President
Letter from UCU to vice chancellor 15 March 2020
We write in advance of our meeting tomorrow in relation to the University of Leeds’ response to COVID-19.
First and foremost, we are calling upon the university to close in order to give us the opportunity to consider what needs to be in place for staff and students to work and live safely, to work through the feasibility of online teaching and assessments, to enable staff to work through their personal situation and commitments, and to allow time to see the situation develop. Once all of this has been done, perhaps after the Easter vacation, it may then be possible to resume some aspects of university activity, including teaching and learning, online.
Many of our members have contacted us with grave concerns about the current approach of keeping the university open, transitioning from face to face teaching gradually rather than immediately, and continuing to require staff to work on site, whatever their circumstances, working conditions and the nature of their job. Staff particularly affected, both because they are self-isolating and because they and those they care for have vulnerabilities to the virus, are anxious to the point of being simply unable to maintain ‘business as usual’. We also note a proliferation of communication at Faculty and School level suggesting inconsistent positions across Schools and Services, which is not acceptable. The approach being taken by the university runs contrary to that taken in many HE sectors around the world, as well as that taken by organisations such as the British Medical Association.
The announcement made on Saturday evening concerning a very limited restriction on some teaching has dismayed us, and distressed and confused many staff. It is unclear to us what the rationale is of using size of class as an indicator of what should close, without any consideration of the size of room or the nature of interaction within the class. It is for example, impossible to maintain ‘appropriate social distancing’ amongst a class of 30 in a room with a capacity of 30. Focus on class size also pays no attention to individual risk factors of members of staff, who are in significantly different positions. And it is not clear that consideration has been given to the safety of staff outside the context of face to face teaching. The announcement creates an impression that the university is taking a haphazard approach that is driven by factors other than the health and safety of staff and students, which ought to be the primary consideration at this time. This is particularly troubling given the legal requirement for the employer to consult with us on all matters concerning the health and safety of employees, and given that we have not yet been provided with the necessary risk assessments. We insist that recognised trades unions be fully included in the ongoing operation of the work streams and in all decisions relating to the health and safety of staff.
Specifically, as a starting point, and without prejudice to any further issues which many arise as the pandemic progresses, we are seeking immediate reassurance on the following points:
- For hourly paid staff, there needs to be a clear guarantee that they will be paid the hours that they are currently expecting to be paid, whether the university closes down or whether they become sick, are required to self-isolate or cannot work due to the vulnerability to the virus of themselves or those they care for or live with. Entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay in this context is insufficient. That guarantee needs to be explicit, to avoid the risk that they will work when they shouldn’t and endanger themselves and others. They also need guarantees that, should they be required to do extra work to move learning online, they will be paid in full for that. Those guarantees need to be communicated clearly to and by Faculties and Schools.
- We have seen no consideration as to the equality implications for both staff and students of moving teaching online, or working from home more generally, with particular reference to the situation of disabled staff and students. That needs to be provided as a matter of urgency.
- We note that support and academic-related staff more often share offices than academic staff, and that many academic staff are already choosing to cancel meetings or move them online while other staff in other categories are less often able to make these choices. There should be no distinction between categories of staff in terms of the ability to work safely. We are particularly concerned about staff such as those in Educational Engagement who spend much time off campus visiting schools and colleges and working with large groups of visitors. We note that applicant Visit Days are still apparently running as normal and are concerned about staff involved in those days as well as the impact of large numbers of people in relatively small spaces. We are also concerned that libraries and other open-access spaces are running as usual. University communications have focused solely on teaching activity, thus ignoring the position of academic-related, professional services, support and technical staff, who are being told to continue ‘business as usual’ with no option of working from home. Whilst some categories of staff may be able to work from home relatively easily, others may not, but they should not be required because of that to continue working in unsafe locations such as crowded offices when others are not. Equally, some staff are more at risk because of the length and nature of their commute. Some functions, such as supporting students who cannot go home, may well need to continue on campus and there needs to be urgent consideration as to how this can be done safely.
- Staff should be able to judge their own risk in relation to their own health position or that of those they care for – they should not be required to provide medical evidence of particular vulnerability. The University needs to issue clear assurances that staff will be able to exercise this personal judgement.
- The current policy makes no provision for those who care for or live with people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Such people should be treated in the same way as staff who themselves are particularly vulnerable.
- The current policy for childcare in case of school closures is not adequate. The limitation of the policy to nursery and primary schools is too narrow. If there are mass school closures alternative child care is likely to be unavailable and/or expensive, reliance on grandparents is clearly unsafe, and many staff do not have local family networks who can help. Staff cannot be expected as a matter of course to work from home whilst caring for children at the same time. Staff therefore need paid leave for childcare for as long as is required.
- Staff should receive no detriment because of time taken off for any reason relating to the pandemic, including within performance management and disciplinary processes. The University must ensure in particular that staff on visas should not suffer any detriment.
- Discussion needs to happen with research staff as to the consequences of lost research, particularly in relation to the travel ban, and data, and contract extensions offered when needed. This will further require engagement with funding bodies. An immediate request needs to be made to relevant national bodies to suspend the REF immediately and indefinitely and all REF related activity, including eligibility meetings, needs to cease.
- Moving teaching on line is a complex process that requires expertise that many staff do not have. This will create stress and anxiety all round. In addition, many teaching activities may not be movable on line for reasons relating to caring responsibilities, connectivity or equipment issues or other practicalities. We believe that this is a major reason why teaching should simply stop for now. Should the university choose to ignore the union’s clear and urgent demand, staff should suffer no detriment arising from any issues in relation to this, particularly concerning probation, promotion and performance management. All metric exercises, such as module and programme surveys, need to be cancelled and there should be no disciplinary dimension arising from any survey of student satisfaction. More generally, staff need to be explicitly told that excellence is not required and that good enough will involve mistakes and errors and failures. This message needs to suffuse all communication with staff and students.
- Staff should be clearly informed about the ownership of any material which they place online as part of moving learning online, and that material should be deleted once completed unless the staff member agrees otherwise.
- Given the amount of work that this will involve, all other activities need to cease in order to avoid unhealthy levels of overwork amongst staff.
- If working from home is to be required, there need to be checks and risk assessments to ensure that staff are able to work from home safely, with particular reference to equality duties towards disabled staff. Staff will need to be supported with equipment and extra expenses incurred will need to be reimbursed.
- Finally, our members have been taking strike action over the past four weeks and are expecting a major financial detriment in the form of a salary deduction at the end of this month. This creates additional hardship in stressful circumstances at a time when staff are being asked to make exceptional efforts to ensure student wellbeing in the face of a crisis. For staff to be able to do this, they need the following:
- That, under these exceptional circumstances, the salary deduction should not be made;
- That if this is refused, the decision not to spread the deduction out should be overturned and the deduction should be spread over as many months as possible to limit the amount of financial stress experienced by staff and make them more able to respond to the exceptional demands of the current situation;
- That in any event, and as a matter of urgency, the reporting deadline for strike action should be extended. Staff have too much going on and too many priorities to be asked to do this immediately on their return to work, and there will be many staff working from home or self isolating when we know that accessing the system off campus is most difficult. This will also take the pressure off IT staff dealing with queries.
We note that a number of peer universities are taking a much more robust approach, for example by bringing forward the end of term. We, alongside national UCU, strongly believe that continuing face to face activity cannot adequately protect and reassure our staff and students.
We look forward to meeting you tomorrow.