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Coronavirus – Email sent to the University of Birmingham on behalf of UNISON, Unite & UCU

Please find below the email sent by UoB UNISON joint branch secretary, Mike Moore (on behalf of UNISON, UCU and Unite) on Friday 13th March (morning) to Gillian McGrattan (Human Resources), Louise Kindon (Human Resources), Stephanie Humphrey (Human Resources), Leslie Wright (Human Resources), Mark Sterling – DPVC Staffing, Philippa Hawkins (Workplace Wellbeing). CC’ed reps from UNISON, Unite, UCU and GMB. We received a brief response on Friday afternoon with assurances that the University senior management are working on this. We are waiting to receive a more detailed response that addresses all the points mentioned below.

Apologies if there are typos below (the copy/pasting from pdf to the website sometimes includes errors).

Dear All,

We’re sending this email jointly just to raise a few points regarding the University’s coronavirus response – though the steps taken around sick pay and dependent leave among others are welcome, we are concerned about a number of safety and employment matters not dealt with by the University’s response so far and would appreciate steps being taken to answer or address the below factors. In general terms we’d highlight that consultation with us over safety matters at the institution is essential both legally and practically (we are excellently placed to address staff concerns and pass on information as well as letting you know what else needs doing based on feedback and concerns from our members). We also of course need to be consulted over employment matters.

Safety concerns

  • Much of the guidance and information circulated so far to staff has focused on being able to provide teaching and other direct academic support remotely. We appreciate that steps need to be made in this regard but it is also important that steps are taken in concert across all services at the University – e.g. if teaching is cancelled without closing or heavily restricting access to study spaces/other buildings this could lead to potentially larger occupancy of these spaces than normal, meaning it could be wholly counterproductive. 
  • Please could we have copies of any risk assessments the University has made of the risk, particularly to staff in higher risk areas (i.e. cleaning, the nursery, highly customer-facing roles like catering)? If they do not already, we feel they should be updated urgently with specific points regarding equipment and chemicals provided for these teams.
  • If a suspected case is reported on University premises, who would be responsible for deep cleaning the area? What training and PPE would they need to do this task?
  • We understand that many departments (including cleaning themselves) are running short of necessary supplies such as hand-sanitiser and disinfectant wipes. Is there provision to procure supplies such as this without going through the normal (generally fairly slow) procurement processes? It would seem sensible for the University to look to obtain stocks of this sort of thing centrally as a matter of urgency and then provide departments with them as necessary.
  • We understand that the guidance encourages those with underlying conditions to contact occupational health for advice before taking action to protect themselves – first of all there could be a large number of people needing this reassurance, and this could lead to delays in them receiving confirmation that they can stay away from work and secondly it does discourage those who may be at quite a high level of risk from taking steps to safeguard themselves (potentially on the advice of their own doctor). Whatever the role of OH in providing advice we do feel it should also be offering this to casual and worklink workers.
  • Also in relation to the University’s guidance, we are particularly concerned about the passage addressed to line managers regarding the approach to take to a member of staff who feels unable to work due to Coronavirus risk – we feel it is highly unwise to refer to disciplinary action in this context, given that managers will probably make their own mind up regarding what qualifies as a good enough reason to avoid work. It’s also very well established in employment law that workers are allowed to take care of their own safety including refusing to work if they have a genuine belief about a serious and imminent risk to their safety. As long as someone genuinely and reasonably believes this then this is entirely legal and disciplinary action in this context would be illegal. It would be better to remove this point entirely to save a lot of misunderstanding.
  • Are you satisfied regarding the policies put in place by contractors working on campus and will this be kept under review?

Broader employment concerns

  • As stated above many staff will find some of the steps taken so far reassuring, and I did find the reference in recent correspondence to ensuring all staff on campus (including those not directly employed by the University) have access to these provisions to be encouraging. Can you confirm what steps are being taken at the moment by the other two major employers on the Edgbaston campus – the Edgbaston Park Hotel and the Guild of Students? Will the University be supporting them in following the same approach to sick pay and dependent leave?
  • Can you confirm that the reference to counting absence due to the virus separately would also extend to anyone who accrues 6 months sick pay as a result? Also it’s worth noting that many absences may not be as simple as a single 7/14 day isolation period given testing delays and the need to care for relatives and dependents. Managers should be prepared to respond with understanding and compassion to a variety of different scenarios.
  • The other main concern clearly is for hourly paid and casual staff in general – can you confirm if these staff will be paid for any assignments that need to be cancelled, either because of individual or local circumstances related to the virus or to any broader University-wide measures? This is clearly the best step to take on public health and moral grounds – we feel that the University needs to guarantee that anyone who might reasonably be expected to be paid by the University or a subsidiary for work during the period affected by the virus will be paid in full regardless of their particular contract or employment status (i.e. including all agency and casual workers).
  • Home-working – we’ve had a number of queries about this and note that guidance on this is due. Broadly speaking it comes down to who will be expected to cover any costs associated with it (particularly as we understand that a number of departments are extending the practice to groups of staff who have not done so before). For example – most insurers expect to be notified if someone is due to work from home for a considerable period and in limited cases this could lead to costs (even administrative charges for modifying a policy can be prohibitive). Will the University cover any such costs for someone who it expects to work from home for the first me? How are GDPR and other statutory limitations being allowed for (i.e. where documents are still primarily hard-copy)?
  • We are concerned that a huge increase in the number of people trying to work remotely will put a lot of pressure on IT support – particularly if they themselves are also trying to work remotely and use call handling systems and the like from home. The whole practice of home-working should be on a “best endeavours” basis due to the clear limitations and the difficulty inherent in massively increasing its use
    over a relatively short period.
  • In terms of the University’s published guidance, it would be helpful to include guidance for staff who live with someone who has been told to self-isolate, or who live or are responsible for someone who is particularly high-risk (i.e. someone with underlying health conditions or an elderly relative).

Finally, who is leading on communication on the matter and is there a particular mechanism that will be used to inform staff of any full or partial closure of campus? Goodwill does need to be exercised in relation to this given that many staff may not use emails or messaging services (should these be set up in their teams). We also have a number of members who only have home phones so the ability to get in touch with all staff very quickly might not work for everyone.

We’d appreciate a response to this as soon as you can given the fast moving and, for many staff, troubling situation.

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