An illustration of the Sars-CoV-2 virus by digital design studio We Are Covert.
An arbitrator has decided in the Northwest Territories Teachers’ Association’s (NWTTA) favour that Covid-19 sick and special leave banks should remain in the collective agreement.
The teachers’ association was fighting the GNWT’s decision to remove the dedicated form of paid leave for employees who were sick with or isolating because of Covid-19 when the two-year public health emergency was lifted.
They argued a letter of understanding called “Covid Sick and Special Leave Banks” which had been added to their collective agreement earlier in the pandemic could not be removed unilaterally by the GNWT without consultation. The GNWT argued its obligation to honour the letter ended along with the Chief Public Health Officer’s orders in the spring.
Matthew Miller, the NWTTA’s president, said he received an email from the GNWT late in the afternoon on March 31 saying that when the public health emergency was lifted the next day on April 1, the GNWT would also be rescinding the letter of understanding and employees would immediately have to start using their regular sick and special time again.
However, in a decision issued November 1, arbitrator sided with the NWTTA, saying the letter of understanding between the two parties never mentions an expiry date or event, not was expiry discussed when the GNWT and NWTTA were at the bargaining table to initially discuss the additional Covid-19 leave.
The NWTTA’s collective agreement with the GNWT covers over 500 teachers. Yellowknife Catholic Schools and YK1 have separate agreements.
“I read the agreement to mean that its term will continue through the actuality of the impact of Covid-19 rather than expiring once public health orders were lifted,” wrote arbitrator Andrew Sims, saying the letter remains in force until the NWTTA and GNWT agree otherwise and the GNWT has to replenish wrongly coded sick and special leave.
“It’s a simple, but regrettable fact, that Covid-19 remains with us despite the end of such orders.”
Now that the decision has come down that the Covid-19 leave bank should have remained in place over the last seven months, the GNWT and the NWTTA have to figure out how to replenish any regular sick and special leave employees used when they should have been using their Covid-19 leave.
“It certainly would have been helpful if they would have let people keep using the [Covid-19] code until the decision had been made,” said Miller. “So now we’re going to be in a position where no one knows exactly who had Covid.”
Miller said the teachers’ association has contacted the labour relations division at the GNWT to begin sorting the situation out.
“I’m glad this is behind us we’ve consistently had a positive relationship with with the employer, so this was a bit of a shock with the way this was handled. And I’m hoping going forward that we can get back on the right track of having positive relationships and more open dialogue and discussion before things reach this point,” said Miller.
The GNWT and the NWTTA will begin discussions in the spring for the next collective agreement, as the existing one expires on July 31, 2023.
That would be the correct time for the GNWT and the NWTTA to negotiate if the Covid-19 leave should be removed or not, Miller said.
The Union of Northern workers was also told the Covid-19 sick and special leave banks would disappear for employees on April 1, and subsequently also filed a grievance and is awaiting a decision. At the time, the GNWT told Cabin Radio the government was “confident that its actions are in compliance with the collective agreement.”
“I am very pleased for the NWTTA members in their recent arbitration award regarding Covid leave codes. Our grievance arbitration was heard June 28-30 by a different arbitrator. We are awaiting the decision but are optimistic for a similar award, as our situations are pretty much the same,” said UNW Gayla Thunstrom by email.
Grievances are essentially allegations that a breach of contract has occurred. Typically, they are handled by successively higher levels within the territorial government and union before ultimately reaching independent arbitration if no agreement can be reached.