QMUCU Update: COVID-19 and Its Impact on Queen Mary Staff

It’s been a busy month since staff returned from strike action at QMUL to find themselves facing a whole set of new challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope, first and foremost, that everyone is safe and well.

QMUCU has been responding to COVID-19 and its impacts on staff welfare in a variety of ways. Please see below for updates on some of our recent activity.

Workload and Stress Survey

Since returning from strike action on 20 March, QMUCU members have (alongside the whole staff and student community) found themselves at home trying to work in unprecedented circumstances

QMUCU is deeply concerned about the impact on members of the rapid transition to remote working. Many staff have had to drastically alter working patterns while dealing with the extraordinary stresses of the pandemic and lockdown.

The stress and anxiety that these changes have caused for many colleagues is not normal, and may equate to unacceptable levels of work related stress and risk. We, therefore, want to hear about your experiences of the transition to remote working via a short survey. Your responses will be vital in helping us craft a collective response to these issues. 

Please fill out the survey by 27 April. It’s a short survey and most people are able to complete it in under 10 minutes.We will only use your information anonymously and with your permission (option given in the survey). 

Open Letters to the Principal

In the past week many departments have sent open letters to the President and Principal expressing concern about the senior management team’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. These letters, bringing together members and non-members, have called upon management to: 

  • rethink their handling of pandemic-related workload issues
  • allow for employee representation by involving the staff unions (including UCU) in response planning
  • provide reassurances over job security for casualised staff
  • offer health and safety guidelines to support staff working at home
  • cancel or postpone pay deductions for striking staff members
  • provide additional support for staff with caring responsibilities

Letters have so far been sent by numerous schools across the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences. These letters have, put together, gathered well over 300 signatures (including professional services as well as research and teaching staff), with supporters ranging in seniority from professors and readers to teaching associates and PhD students. If your school, institute or department has yet to put together an open letter, now is the time to start writing! Contact us on contact@qmucu.org if you’d like to see those already sent.

Anti-Casualisation and #CoronaContract

The situation of precarious staff is one of our major concerns at present. The President and Principal has instructed heads of schools, institutes and departments that recruitment has been frozen. It is likely that the positions of many of our casualised colleagues will be threatened. 

Precarious staff urgently need assurances from senior management that they will not suffer any detriment due to the coronavirus crisis. 

Casualised workers across QM have already begun to organise to demand extensions to their contracts, pathways to permanency, redeployment, and where possible, inclusion in the government’s furlough scheme. If you are a casualised worker at QM, you don’t need to fight this alone. Link up with others in your department and get in touch with QMUCU’s anti-casualisation reps

QMUCU fully supports the nationwide #CoronaContract campaign which along with other assurances demands an immediate two year extension to all fixed term contracts. QMUCU’s anti-casualisation working group is also working on launching their own proposal for a  #QMCoronaContract. More details to follow.

Strike Deductions

Staff will by now have been asked by line managers to report participation in the latest round of UCU strike action. These requests came in spite of the opposition, in light of the pandemic, of several non-striking heads of schools. Numerous institutions around the country – including our London neighbours Birkbeck, King’s, and UCL – either cancelled or delayed strike deductions in recognition of the sacrifices being made by staff in their transition to remote working. QMUL’s senior management should be following suit. 

Strike deductions cause stress even when calculated correctly, but it turns out that – for casualised staff in particular – this has not been the case. Hourly-paid teaching associates and teaching fellows who took strike action in November and December did not have their pay deducted according to the agreed rate and as such were over-deducted. QMUCU has raised this with HR via the Joint Consultation Forum, and we can confirm that refunds should be issued in this month’s salary. 

Calculating strike related deductions for hourly paid staff is more complex than it is for permanent staff and can lead to errors. But these errors can be punishing for our most precarious and low paid staff. A further issue for PhD students unable to remotely access myHR has been partially resolved after QMUCU’s intervention.

We advise all staff – whether hourly-paid or not – to check their payslip to ensure that strike deductions have been processed correctly.

COVID-19 and Continuing UCU’s Four Fights

All of the issues that COVID-19 is creating at QM reflect the concerns that led us to take strike action this academic year. 

  • The pandemic is leading to soaring workloads, exacerbated by the disruption to normal working routines created by working at home. 
  • The extra work required to switch to online working, especially for teaching, further highlights the pay devaluation commonplace in HE. 
  • Casualised staff are contending with the impact of the pandemic on their working conditions whilst also facing extreme job insecurity, at a time when job opportunities are likely to shrink across HE. 
  • All of the above issues are exacerbated by the  structural pay inequality affecting BAME and female members of staff. 

COVID-19 may appear to have changed everything. But it also exacerbates many of the things  we need to change about our universities. The four fights must continue!

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