A Newark Public Schools directive that required teachers union members, including teachers, aides, and other school staff, to use sick or personal days for COVID-related absences violated a collective bargaining agreement, an arbitrator ruled last week.
Now, more than a year after a grievance was filed by the union, the American Federation of Teachers Local 481, the district will have to pay roughly $1 million in back pay and sick or personal time, said Michael Maillaro, the union’s director of research and communication, in a phone call with Chalkbeat on Tuesday.
Union leaders estimate around 800 of their 4,000 members used sick or personal time when they had to stay home due to COVID exposure or contracting the virus, and those who ran out of days were docked pay for the days they stayed home due to mandated quarantine.
A stipulation in the union’s contract that union leaders say has been in place since the 1970s lists “quarantine as defined by Newark Board of Education’s health services office and the employee’s physician” as a case where “no deduction of salary of a regular employee shall be made for absence.”
The union argued in its grievance filed on Oct. 13, 2021, that the Newark Board of Education violated its collective bargaining agreement by charging union members with sick or personal days while they were in quarantine for COVID-19, according to a copy of the grievance.
The school district countered that teachers and school staff had to stay home due to COVID to “isolate,” not “quarantine,” and, therefore, had to use sick days, according to a copy of the grievance decision.
After the grievance was filed and no resolution could be reached between union representatives and the Newark Board of Education, it was submitted to binding arbitration, Maillaro said. The union and district mutually picked a qualified arbitrator, Robert C. Gifford, who’s been an arbitrator since 2001.
“I conclude that the broader, more commonly accepted meaning of the term ‘quarantine’ must be applied in this instance,” Gifford said in his ruling. He added that the contract’s stipulation on paid leave for quarantines applied to COVID-related absences.
An arbitrator’s decision in these cases is final and binding, and a failure to comply could be seen as an unfair labor practice, according to the U.S. Federal Labor Relations Authority.
The Newark Public Schools spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
School staff and teachers were constantly at risk of being exposed to the virus, especially when schools first returned to fully in-person learning last fall, Maillaro said.
At times, he added, members who ran out of their allotted paid time off would feel stuck choosing between being honest about their COVID exposure and missing out on pay, or not being honest in order to get a full paycheck.
“If you’re telling them they’re going to be docked pay or lose their days, then should I be honest about having COVID?” Maillaro said. “It’s a scary situation when we’re dealing with a pandemic and you don’t want people to feel afraid to be honest about their situation.”
One union member, who asked to be kept anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that losing sick and personal time due to being in quarantine felt like a shot to morale among teachers.
“It just showed us how much value we have in their eyes,” the teacher said in a phone call on Tuesday. “How much of a concern do our higher-ups have for us? We’re still pumping out work, even while we’re sick and you’re saying well you’ve got to use your personal time?”
Newark educators were hoping to return to “normal” last year, not to have to file complaints due to a contract violation, said Donna M. Chiera, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey chapter.
“This decision forcing the administration to honor the written contract is not only a victory for the Newark Teachers Union and their members, it also sends a message throughout New Jersey,” Chiera said in an emailed statement. “That message is collective bargaining contracts are not guidelines school districts can arbitrarily implement when they work to their advantage; they are legal documents that must be followed.”
Union president John Abeigon said the arbitrator’s ruling is a “huge victory” for union members and for the protection of school staff and students’ health and safety.
“Even if staff were exposed to COVID in schools, they were forced to use their sick time, and in many cases, they were threatened with additional negative consequences,” Abeigon said in an emailed statement.
Maillaro said that it could take weeks or months before the district fulfills the arbitrator’s ruling in back pay and sick days. As of Wednesday, the union had not gotten a response at all from the district since the final decision came last week, he added.
Still, there’s a lot to celebrate for teachers who will ultimately get sick and personal time reinstated, said the teacher who asked to be kept anonymous.
“People are feeling excited to have those days back because they did not think it was fair from the beginning,” the teacher said. “When you know the rainbow is coming, you just try to enjoy.”
Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org.