23 April 2016

Today's Koan: "More than Half a Day or Less"

A half-hour after the two-day NTFC Local 6546 strike ended at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on April 20, all members of the bargaining unit received an email from university HR demanding that they report whether or not they participated in the strike by Friday, April 22.  I blogged about that email here, but at that point I had not even clicked on the link to see the form I had to fill out. Here it is, in case you're interested. 
I myself found the form confusing, and my situation is simple. My job these days has a regular nine-to-five structure, so missing two days has effects that I myself am having to cope with as I make up for a solid 16 hours of lost office time of my own choosing. So what exactly am I supposed to put on this form?

I'm guessing that they're asking me to write in either or both dates, but the request "document the number of days of the strike" makes it sound like they don't know the nature of the labor action and want some evidence that the strike lasted as long as I say it did.  On the other hand, they only give two slots to write in a date, so who knows?
Okay, I'm being a little snarky here, but the person who generated this email is paid a high six figures (or the equivalent of 3 - 6 writing instructors, depending their rank) to communicate information about contracts and employment procedures to all the employees of the university. Clarity would seem to be in order.
I'm not the only person who was left with questions.  Fortunately, HR has provided an email "strikequestions@illinois.edu" where we can submit them.  
NTFC Local 6546 President Shawn Gilmore read the form carefully on behalf of his union members, and had more, which he kindly shared with many of us

  1. The instruction email indicates that the Provost's office believes it is "is required to pay employees who work and to withhold pay from employees who chose not to work during the strike." What, specifically, requires this to be your office's approach?
  2. The instruction email also indicates that "[i]f you elected to participate in the strike, it is required that you complete the Time and Attendance Form." To be clear, you have decided that this is your policy, thus the correct phrasing should be "The Provost's office requires..." correct?
  3. The instruction email indicates that I should "submit the completed document to your unit administrator who handles HR matters." However, it is not clear if this means the administrator that supervises the three courses I'm teaching this semester (Bruce Erickson, the director of the Programs in Professional Writing), the Associate Head of the Department, who is in charge of the department's curriculum more broadly (Tim Newcomb), the Department Head, who signs my appointment letter each year (Michael Rothberg), our business manager (Jennifer Daly), or some other party.
  4. The instruction email indicates that "The University is not interested in learning whether you do or do not support a labor organization or whether you have or have not engaged in protected concerted activities." But this is directly contradicted by the online form itself, which collects said information and provides no way to abstain from this question.
  5. The instruction email indicates that "The purpose of this form is purely to determine whether you did or did not work on April 19th and/or April 20th, in order to accurately account for your time and to make any necessary pay adjustments for one or both days." However, the form provided cannot accurate account my time, as the form is not arranged in a way that corresponds with my labor. I do not have a fixed schedule that recurs each day, and as a professional, am expected to manage my time at my professional discretion. In point of fact, I shifted much of my work for these affected days to the weekend beforehand, over which I worked at least 10 hours that I was not compensated for. How will this be accounted for?
  6. The form itself is an insecure .pdf format, which could potentially be filled out for me on my behalf without my knowledge. This raises large concerns about the privacy of my reporting and the accuracy of any information you receive.
  7. Further, the instructions and form do not clarify the mechanics of submission--should I print and fill this out; can I email this document?
  8. The required form reads that "[a]ny disputes related the hours worked during a strike will be reviewed before a final determination is made." Who will conduct this review? What is their expertise in assessing the work of teaching faculty and the management of their time? How can I be assured that this review will be impartial?
  9. The form indicates that "[l]aws and policies regarding the appropriate use of state resources require that you accurately report work hours." This may be the case, but there is a implication here that your office must then respond in a certain way via those laws and policies, which I would like documentation on.
  10. Finally, have you discussed the method of this reporting and assessment with the union, NTFC Local #6546? As your office obviously had prepared this documentation in advance, did you ask about cases that might apply to other members of the union? What of research faculty who ran their labs and walked the picket line? What of faculty that chose to teach and picket? Or that shifted their labor in order to complete most of their week's work on Monday, Thursday, and Friday this week?
Once I have some clarity on these issues, I will be happy to report my actions and time accurately. But I am not comfortable signing a document representation my actions and their consequences given the documentation I currently have.
Some members have written to point out that the April 22 deadline poses a hardship for those who celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover, which begins at sundown that day (or at noon for those who are strict in their ritual observance) and, like Christmas or Easter, for many requires travel to celebrate with family.

Others have pointed out that the nature of faculty work duties is such that one can  be physically absent from campus for two days and not grading papers or responding to email while still meeting all the needs of the courses one teaches.  In addition, many of are accustomed to doing a lot of work while off-campus or on weekends. Most of us don't get equipment like computers or phones from the university to do our jobs, and some shared offices don't have adequate wifi for the many teaching tasks that must be completed online, even for a face-to-face class. Moreover, an office shared by teaching faculty meeting students in office hours is not conducive to the teaching preparation and grading that requires focus and concentration.  So it's a good thing that as professionals, we are generally empowered to allocate our own time as we see fit.

Many of us have gotten variations on the following boilerplate response to our questions:

Thank you for recent email. In response to the various questions that you posed, the form is intended simply to ensure that employees are paid accurately and in accordance with the relevant law. The campus must not pay employees for services that they did not perform and may properly deduct pay from those employees in a manner consistent with the Fair Labor Standards Act. Under that Act, an exempt employee may be docked pay in half day increments if the employee does not perform services on a given workday, even if the employee performed more hours than usual on other days within the workweek. In accordance with these principles, the campus intends to use the following guide in assessing whether any deduction in pay is warranted:
  • If an employee worked a full day, no time will be deducted;
  • If an employee worked more than half day or less, no time will be deducted;
  • If an employee worked a half day or less, four hours will be deducted; and
  • If an employee did not work anytime on that day, eight hours will be deducted.
In determining the amount of time worked in a given workday, the time spent in activities such as grading papers, planning, conducting research and so forth should be counted. Department representatives will be seeking confirmation from those employees who submit forms that they did not engage in any of these other work activities on the dates of the strike. We are not requesting additional documentation be submitted with the form. In addition, if an employee needs additional time to submit the form, they should seek an extension from their supervisor or department administrator who handles HR matters. There will be no penalty assessed for submitting this next week.

In your case, you should submit the form to your department’s business manager, [name] either electronically or in the form of a hard copy. I would advise you to ask her who is the most appropriate person to sign the document.
The response of course raises additional questions:

  • What is "more than half a day or less"? 
  • What provisions are there for employees who "perform more hours than usual" outside the workweek?
  • How exactly will "department representatives...be seeking confirmation" that those of us submitting the form "did not engage in any of these other work activities"? 
But enough. One grows weary of this troll/countertroll game. Whatever capacity HR has for enacting coherent and well-articuled employment policies ought to be directed in the next four days to communicating with the Interim Provost and Interim Chancellor so that the administration bargaining table can come to the schedule mediation session on April 27 ready to bargain with reasonable proposals on the thirteen key issues still outstanding.

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