End of paid COVID-19 leave

Raymond McCaffrey, an associate professor of journalism, teaches his ethics in journalism class with two masks on. Faculty members learned Feb. 14 that the paid COVID-19 sick days they had previously been allowed to take would no longer be available starting Feb. 25.

Starting Feb. 25, UA faculty and staff members will no longer receive paid sick days specifically dedicated to COVID-19 recovery, and instead must dip into their standard leave reserves if they test positive and have to stay home from work.

The previous university policy, mandated by federal and state laws, allotted each eligible employee 80 total hours of COVID-19 leave. Now, employees absent because of COVID-19 illness, quarantine, isolation, caring for an infected child or other similar issues must use sick leave, paid vacation days or unpaid leave in accordance with university policy, UA human resources officials said in a Feb. 14 email to employees.

Some professors do not feel very affected by the cancellation of paid COVID-19 leave, such as history instructor Bethany Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum sees the end of the policy as a sign that society is overcoming the pandemic as cases and the need for extra sick leave have declined, she said.

It has been impossible to track the rate of COVID-19 cases on the UA campus since Pat Walker Health officials stopped reporting weekly numbers Feb. 21. There were 206 active cases in Washington County on Tuesday, down from 184 March 1, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December shortened the recommended isolation and quarantine periods for those exposed to or infected with COVID-19 from 10 days to five, citing the decreased severity of illness caused by the omicron variant.

“(Because of) the new CDC guidelines for quarantine, if faculty or staff are exposed or test positive for COVID, the number of sick days needed are less, which isn't such a burden on reducing our sick leave time,” Rosenbaum said.

The UofA previously offered paid COVID-19 leave in accordance with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was in effect April 1 to Dec. 31, 2020, Manager of University Communications John Thomas said. The act required certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specific reasons related to COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Under the law, eligible employees were entitled to 80 hours of fully paid sick leave if unable to work due to quarantine, 80 hours of sick leave at two-thirds regular pay if unable to work while caring for ill or quarantined people, and an additional 10 weeks of expanded medical and family leave at two-thirds regular pay if unable to work while caring for a child whose school or daycare was closed.

When the program expired, the UA System continued offering up to 80 hours of paid leave with certain conditions for employees affected by COVID-19, in accordance with a state program, Amy Uhruh, senior director of administrative communications, said. The leave program was not a continuation of the FFCRA, but it ensured similar benefits for eligible UA employees through Feb. 25.

Throughout the pandemic, not all employees have had to take sick leave after testing positive for COVID-19. Spencer Allen, an international studies professor, contracted the virus in January and did not feel very ill, so he moved the first week of his classes to remote instruction instead of canceling them, he said.

“Having Blackboard (Collaborate) as a resource made starting the semester better without falling behind too suddenly,” Allen said. “Because of this, I know the new policy wouldn't affect me personally.”

Vice Chancellor of Human Resources Debbie McLoud said during a town hall meeting Jan. 19 that the UA administrators encouraged supervisors and faculty members to remain flexible in assisting employees with needs arising from COVID-19 complications.

“Employees who can perform their work remotely may be approved to work at home on a short-term basis if they are well enough or to care for children,” McLoud said. “An alternative work schedule could also be considered.”

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