Nfld. & Labrador

Sick of taking sick days, teachers union files grievance against board, government

The NLTA says if a teacher misses work because they are following COVID-19 guidelines, that teacher should be provided with paid leave instead of using a sick day.

NLTA says teachers should be given paid leave for missing work due to COVID-19 guidelines

Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association president Dean Ingram says the school district and the government should provide paid leave for teachers who miss work if they fail the COVID-19 screening questionnaire. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Less than three weeks into the 2020 school year, new COVID-19 guidelines have already become a sore spot between teachers, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District and the provincial government. 

At the heart of the issue is whether teachers should be required to use sick leave when they cannot go to work as a result of following COVID-19 guidelines that the provincial government and the school district have implemented. 

The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association contends that if a teacher misses work because they are following the provincial government's guidelines, that teacher should be provided with paid leave instead of using their own personal allotment of sick days.

"The association doesn't accept that government has the authority from either the context of our provincial or Lab West [collective] agreements, or for that matter the Schools Act, to direct teachers to use their sick leave because they're exhibiting symptoms which may or may not interfere with how they're able to perform their duties," said NLTA president Dean Ingram.

The NLTA has filed a group grievance with the NLESD and the Department of Education to try to get paid leave for teachers in these situations.

'Our sick days are dear to us'

CBC spoke with one teacher who is part of the NLTA's group grievance, and is not identifying her. 

The teacher said she had to miss a day's work during the second week of school because she failed the government's COVID-19 self-screening checklist. 

The NLTA has filed a grievance with the NLESD and Department of Education over teachers having to use sick leave when they miss work over the government's COVID-19 screening questionnaire. (CBC)

"I had some gastrointestinal issues throughout the night. Along with that I had a headache. So I thought I better check the COVID screening from the district just to see if these are on the list, and they were," she said. 

Under normal circumstances, this teacher — indeed, like many others working in various jobs and industries — said she likely would have taken some over-the-counter medication for her symptoms and tried going to work.

But this year, the provincial government has implemented the use of a self-screening questionnaire that teachers, school staff and students must use when deciding whether they should go to school on any given day. 

The questionnaire includes a checklist of potential COVID-19 symptoms, such a fever, cough, runny nose, as well as gastrointestinal issues and headache.

If someone exhibits two or more of the symptoms listed, or if they answer "Yes" to one of the other questions such as whether they've been outside of the Atlantic bubble in the past 14 days, the questionnaire states they are not to enter the school.

Instead, they are directed to stay home and use the Department of Health's online COVID-19 self-assessment tool.

The teacher notified her assistant principal that she had not passed the screening checklist, and would be following the stated protocols. 

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Later, the assistant principal sent her a followup email, notifying her that she would have to use one of her sick days because she did not go to work.

"The district had advised that this would be a Code 1, which is sick leave, so I was to use my sick leave for this incident even though in pre-COVID times I would probably have taken a Tylenol and [gone] to work," she said

She says the policy of making teachers use sick leave instead of providing them with paid leave for work missed due to failing the COVID-19 questionnaire in concerning because it's time that teachers normally wouldn't be taking off.

"Just because you didn't pass two of the screening questions doesn't mean you're not able to work," she said. "Our sick days are very dear to us, I guess, and we use them when absolutely necessary."

Extenuating circumstances

Meanwhile, Ingram says the teachers' collective agreement already contains language that would allow for the provision of paid leave under extenuating circumstances.

And the NLTA considers work missed due to the government's COVID-19 screening questionnaire should be considered one of those situations.

Schools have tried to implement a number of health and safety measures to help limit the spread of COVID-19, including physical distancing when possible, and daily self-screening questionnaires for staff and students. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

"We believe that the collective agreements in concert with the Schools Act provide that mechanism and certainly support our case with regards to the grievance," Ingram said.

CBC requested interviews with representatives from the NLESD and the provincial Department of Education.

The NLESD declined the opportunity to speak, but provided the following statement: "The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District respects the provisions of the NLTA collective agreement, and the dispute resolution process. The district contends it would be inappropriate to comment publicly on any ongoing matter proceeding through that process."

In a statement Monday afternoon, the Department of Education said it "respects the provisions of the NLTA collective agreement and the dispute resolution process" used to deal with grievances. 

"It would be inappropriate to provide further comment on a matter going through the grievance process. Once the grievance process is complete, the minister will be happy to comment." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Jonny Hodder is a journalist with CBC Radio based in St. John's.

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