Ellen Schweitzer

ELLEN SCHWEITZER: Unconvinced by UFT rationale.

Six members of the United Federation of Teachers June 25 filed an improper-practice charge with the state Public Employees Relations Board over the union's decision to suspend the grievance process due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The educators stated that more than 200 members who attempted to file grievances related to health and safety violations that occurred between March 9 and March 16—the day city public schools first closed—were unable to do so.

'Nervous' About Lost Right

Ellen Schweitzer, a Social Studies Teacher and UFT Delegate at Stuyvesant High School, spoke of the frustration and worry faced by Teachers who were told they had to come to school the week of March 16 in order to train for online instruction. She said that staff members who did not show up lost days from their sick bank, so on April 17 she submitted two grievances to her school’s Principal on their behalf.

Ms. Schweitzer stated that on April 23, a Step One conference was held with her Principal via the video-conferencing platform Zoom, but they later learned that the three-step grievance process used by the UFT had been suspended.

“It made us very nervous not to have that process as a recourse,” she said during a virtual press conference held the same day the PERB charge was filed. “There was no explanation given for the suspension, I don’t see why [videoconferencing] couldn’t be done at the other levels of the grievance process.”

Alison Gendar, a spokeswoman for the UFT, said that the union and the Department of Education froze the grievance process on March 16 “both because of the challenges with continuing grievances in a remote environment and the need for expedited resolutions to issues that might arise during remote learning related to the coronavirus.”

Resume in October

“Therefore it agreed with the DOE to suspend the traditional grievance process, an agreement now scheduled to continue until October 1, 2020,” she said.

The UFT stated that it was currently relying on an "operational process” that moves contractual disputes that can’t be quickly resolved with a school’s Principal to the jurisdiction of the local superintendent and a central operations committee including UFT representatives.

That process has been used to handle a range of complaints that have come up because of remote-learning such as “unreasonable grading requirements” and an excessive numbers of weekly meetings, the union stated.

The members behind the PERB charge argued that the UFT “has taken away members' right to grieve.”

Ms. Gendar stated that the union was "confident that PERB will recognize that all members' rights have been preserved during this unprecedented crisis."

'Violated Duty to Represent'

The educators also claimed the union “violated its duty of fair representation by failing to exercise complete good faith and honesty in its obligation to serve the interests of all of its members,” particularly because the UFT did not provide them with proof that the DOE had agreed to the suspension after requesting such documents.

DOE spokeswoman Danielle Filson confirmed the agreement.

"We want our Teachers to have fair and efficient processes to discuss any program-related or issues regarding remote learning. Given our remote environment, we worked with our labor partners at their request to create a temporary alternative,” she said.

Derek Hafner, an English Teacher at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School and member of the dissident Movement of Rank and File Educators caucus, noted that the school where his mother works on Long Island had not stopped taking grievances during the pandemic.

“Even if our school buildings are closed, that doesn’t mean that workplace abuse won’t continue,” he said.

“If anything, there may be more contract violations during this time of crisis,” Ms. Schweitzer noted.

David Price, a Math Teacher at Bard High School Early College Queens, said he saw his colleagues having to choose between potentially getting sick by going to school or stay home and lose pay as the number of coronavirus cases in the city began to escalate.

'An Unfair Choice'

“I joined in this complaint because Teachers at my school didn’t feel it was fair to have to make that choice,” he said.

The educators were especially concerned that staff would be unable to file grievances for violations that occurred in the days prior to schools being closed March 16, or for those that occurred at some point later that week, when staff were required to come into school buildings to train for remote-learning. They worried that a provision requiring members to file a grievance within 30 days of the contractual violation would allow the DOE to dismiss complaints as untimely if they were filed after the suspension is lifted.

Ms. Gendar clarified that the “health and safety issues relating to Teachers’ return to schools for training in March can be resubmitted when the grievance suspension period ends; at that time their grievances will be heard through the traditional process.”

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