COVID-19 (coronavirus) advice for HE staff

UNISON is calling on universities to protect staff and student safety as a top priority during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I work in higher education. What is UNISON doing?

UNISON has agreed a national statement with the national higher education employers – UCEA. This joint statement makes it clear that universities should work closely with the campus unions to navigate staffing issues that arise from Covid-19.

Covid-19 Statement link

This statement makes clear that all universities should engage with their local UNISON branches to work out the best possible ways to move forward in this difficult situation. Nationally and locally we are seeking to ensure that pay and jobs are protected, and we continue to have discussions with employers and government departments across the UK.

Which staff can be asked to work on campus?

Some universities may have to keep halls of residence open for students who don’t have any other home or who are unable to return to their home country. Some research labs also need to remain operational, especially where medical research is being carried out that may impact on the current pandemic.

However, all universities should now have ended face to face teaching and most have moved this and other services online. The joint statement above makes it clear that only business critical staff carrying out essential services should be asked to come to work.

UNISON has been in discussion with the government as to which roles should be defined as ‘business critical’. This might vary from campus to campus but if you have any questions or concerns please speak to your branch.

What if I work for a private contractor?

UNISON recognises that many employees working for a private contractor are in a vulnerable situation and need the support of their local branch. We want to make sure that you are treated fairly and that your jobs and incomes are protected.

UNISON is seeking clarification as to how the government’s planned Job Retention Scheme to offer 80% funding for wages will be made available. Further information for members will follow as soon as we have it.

What about my pay?

UNISON is working hard to make sure that employment rights, jobs and wages are right at the top of the agenda for the government and employers. Your employer should continue to pay you according to your contract and terms and conditions of employment, unless another agreement is reached.

If your employer suggests they might not pay you, or might not pay you in full, please keep records of any correspondence and contact your local branch.

Meanwhile, the HE unions have submitted our pay claim for 2020-21. The joint unions and employers have agreed that national pay negotiations need to be delayed by Covid-19.

Can my employer ask me to use up my annual leave?

This will depend on your contract of employment and your employer’s annual leave policy. If you have been asked to take your annual leave check your employer’s policy and talk to your UNISON branch.

I’m worried my job is under threat. What should I do?

If you have reason to believe your job is under threat please seek advice from your local branch. You can contact UNISON via our online form. We are calling on employers to consult fully with the trade unions and to do everything that they can to protect jobs and wages in this fast-changing situation.

How will my health and safety be protected?

Universities need to properly risk assess the work that those staff who remain on campus are undertaking and provide the correct equipment as needed.

We know that some technicians and cleaning staff may be needed to work in medical and nursing schools, and potentially in areas of possible contamination including laboratories and students’ accommodation.

The joint statement above, agreed by the employers and unions, makes clear that risk assessments should be reviewed to ensure that government guidelines are met and that new risks are taken account of. See UNISON’s detailed FAQ page on personal protective equipment (PPE) for those who need it, and if you have any concerns speak to your local branch.

I’m more vulnerable – should I be asked to come in to work?

We firmly believe that staff with certain health conditions or those who are pregnant should not be expected to come to work during this pandemic, as per government guidance on vulnerable groups.

People living with someone who has been identified by the NHS as having underlying health conditions that put them at most serious risk, and now need to totally self-isolate, should also arrange with their university to work from home whatever their job is.

We are urgently pressing the government on coronavirus testing for front line public service workers like you.

If you have any concerns or queries please contact your local branch for advice.

What responsibilities does my employer have if I am working from home?

The joint statement above makes clear that where staff are working from home or an alternative location, your employer should give appropriate consideration to risk assessments, make sure you have the equipment you need to do your job, and think about how to safeguard your mental and physical health.

Your employer should also consider how you can stay connected with your colleagues and provide regular opportunities for virtual contact.

Where staff are parents or carers, your employer should give consideration to flexible working hours now that schools are closed to the majority of children.