The University of Oregon’s graduate employee union Monday filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the state Employment Relations Board alleging the university’s new COVID-19 policies violate their contract.

The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation says the university’s new policies, announced last week, constitute a change in working conditions for graduate employees — something that must be negotiated through bargaining.

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The GTFF requested last Wednesday that UO administration move classes online for two weeks, or until surging COVID-19 cases in the campus community “decrease to a reasonable level.”

Last week, the university reported 982 COVID-19 cases within the campus community, according to its data dashboard. That’s up from 154 cases the week before.

The university on Thursday implemented new COVID-19 policies stating that instructors — including union-represented graduate teaching fellows — may move their courses online on two conditions. They need the support of their deans or department heads, and their classes must be experiencing 20% or more COVID-19-related student absences. Instructors who continue to work in-person must record their class sessions for absent students.

The University of Oregon's business school on Dec. 1, 2019.

The University of Oregon's business school on Dec. 1, 2019.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

“By making GEs [graduate employees] keep track of the 20% threshold of COVID-related absences and making GEs record their classes, the University is making direct changes to our working conditions without our consent through bargaining,” the GTFF said in a statement this weekend.

The union is encouraging its members to exercise their right to refuse to work in an unsafe work environment.

The GTFF has received support for its requests within and outside of the campus community.

The Associated Students of UO, the university’s student government, last week posted online that it is standing in solidarity with the union.

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Liz Shuler, a UO alumni and president of the AFL-CIO — the largest federation of unions in the nation — tweeted Friday in support of the GTFF.

“It’s time for management to honor their request for temporarily remote classes until conditions are safe to return,” she wrote.

Mel Keller, GTFF president, says the right to refuse to work in an unsafe work environment is protected by the union’s contract with the university.

“We want to make sure that all of our members have knowledge of this policy and that they have rights under our contract that was bargained with the university by the GTFF to give them protections if they’re feeling that their workplace is unsafe,” Keller told OPB.

Along with the potential contract violations, Keller says the university’s new policy is unclear — particularly the 20% COVID-19-related absence mark.

Keller said the union has heard “mass confusion around the new policy” from union members and individual UO departments.

“We have heard from faculty members and department heads as well, who are similarly confused and are trying to figure out how to implement this policy on their department level,” she said, saying the university hasn’t provided guidance on how to measure the 20% absence rate due to COVID-19.

“There’s no explanation on if it needs to be 20% of students submit a COVID test, or if it’s on word-of-mouth alone, if students are absent but don’t give COVID-related reasons. It is incredibly unclear.”

The union says instructors at the university are the ones who take attendance and receive information about absences, so they should have the power to make the request to move courses online, regardless of the attendance rate.

The union said in its message that the most responsible move for the university would be to move courses online, and provide protective N95 or KN95 masks to in-person employees and students who must remain in-person such as those in lab environments.

“UO clearly will not take this on, and given the health and safety risks of this policy we believe that all instructional GEs should request remote teaching,” GTFF leaders wrote.

Keller also said the university’s new policies are putting unnecessary pressure on individual departments within the school. She argues it would make more sense for the university to shift largely to online learning rather than “having to deal with tons and tons of requests” from individual instructors and graduate students.

Keller with the GTFF said the union had not heard anything back from UO administration in regard to its state complaint as of Monday afternoon. The university told OPB Monday evening that it “has initiated a review of the filing.”

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