Faculty union, administration reach agreement on COVID safety measures | University Times

By SUSAN JONES

The Union of Pitt Faculty and Pitt’s administration have reached a memorandum of understanding on some new health-related policies that will allow faculty more flexibility if they or a member of their household are at higher risk from COVID-19.

The new rules include:

COVID-19 work adjustments: This establishes a new process for faculty to request adjustments if they need additional protections against COVID-19, whether because of their own risk factors or those of members of their household. This could include remote instruction.

Remote office hours: Individual faculty members in every unit have the right to hold office hours virtually or in an alternative location when masking is not required.

The union, which is part of the United Steelworkers (USW), had filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board in March when the University decided that masks were no longer required in Pitt buildings. The union alleged the decision to change masking requirements should have been negotiated, since it significantly changed working conditions for faculty.

The new agreement, which also includes a request by the union to access more complete information about filtration and ventilation in faculty workspaces, resolves that complaint. Pitt currently only requires masks indoors when the CDC risk level in the county is at high.

The University said in a statement that it is “pleased that the parties were able to work together and resolve the unfair labor practice charge.” Provost Ann Cudd said this week that she is “pleased that we came to a mutually agreeable resolution of that and I think it will work out just fine.”

“These COVID-19 measures demonstrate why my colleagues and I formed our union,” English professor Tyler Bickford, a member of the union negotiating committee, said in a news release from the USW. “When Pitt tried to implement a policy without seeking input from those most affected by it, we brought the administration to the table and bargained an agreement that addresses our concerns.”

Senate President Robin Kear said the Senate officers “would have appreciated working with the union on this issue to possibly bring this type of protection to all faculty, not just to those in the bargaining unit, however we had no invitation.”

“The union’s involvement with this issue indicates a desire to expand beyond the economic interests of faculty into other realms traditionally represented through shared governance for all faculty,” she said. “We are pleased to see this agreement for the 2022-23 academic year for those unionized faculty with vulnerable family members. Protections had been in place for individual faculty members through established channels, but this does expand a request to a faculty member’s household. It is still a request and subject to administrative approval, balancing the needs of schools, units and students.”

Thomas Songer and Gosia Fort, co-chairs of the Senate’s Faculty Affairs committee, echoed Kear’s comments that faculty “are in a new environment of unionized faculty involvement in matters that go beyond wages and benefits.”

“Typically, in the past, through the shared governance process, (the Faculty Affairs) committee would have been involved in the decision-making process,” the two said in an email. “We hope that University faculty have been involved in the MOU process in a meaningful way.”

They also noted that the MOU “highlights that we remain in a pandemic, but with a different set of circumstances than existed 2.5 years ago. As we have learned so much in this time, it is important to remember that the impact of the pandemic goes beyond the virus itself, and in our academic environment affects our students and trainees in different ways than it affects our faculty. Having an approach that balances the perspectives of all in our university community is particularly important.”

The process for requesting an adjustment is outlined on the union’s website. It makes clear that these new policies do not replace the existing accommodation process for faculty who qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Anyone requesting an adjustment because of their own health issues, should first contact the Disability Resources and Services office. If your accommodation request is denied or you’re seeking an adjustment because of the health risks of someone in your household (which is not covered by ADA), then you can request an adjustment directly from your supervisor using this Adjustment Request Form. You will not be asked to submit any confidential health or personal information, but will need to provide at least two suggested adjustments to your working conditions that would mitigate your COVID-19 risk.

If you and your supervisor are unable to agree on a reasonable adjustment, you have the right to appeal that decision to the provost’s office. If your appeal is denied, the provost’s office will provide a written explanation.

“While not all requests will be approved, the administration has committed to seeking reasonable adjustments, and to working collaboratively with you to find solutions,” the union said on its website.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.

 

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