Johnny Earl is a member of the Service Employee International Union. The SEIU stems far beyond the University of Oregon, and its mission is to fight for fair treatment for healthcare, public sector and property service workers from their employers. Full time UO employees have 80 hours of COVID-19 related leave to use by June 2022. (Serei Hendrie/Emerald)

When the University of Oregon felt the first effects of COVID-19 in March 2020, UO employee Mohamed Mounir used all 80 hours of his available COVID-19-specific leave to care for his daughter as she transitioned to remote learning. Mounir is currently an account technician in the chemistry department, but he was working as a custodian at the time.

He said his time went quickly between helping with homework, setting up the computer, cooking food and entertaining his daughter.

“It wasn't enough,” he said. “Yes, I was thankful for being able to take some time and help with my daughter’s homework. It helped to get some things done, but it's not enough because they stayed off school for six months or more.”

Full time UO employees have 80 hours of COVID-19 leave to use “for an employee’s own COVID-19 exposure or diagnosis or to care for a dependent family member living in the home who needs to quarantine or isolate,” for the 2021-22 academic year. This can be used in addition to other types of employee leave.

UO granted 80 hours of COVID-19 leave in March 2020, and another 80 hours in April 2020 due to a clerical error. Some employees say their leave hours don’t go far enough.

Johnny Earl has worked at UO for 20 years and currently serves as chair of the Service Employee International Union’s higher education bargaining team. He said many SEIU members shared Mounir’s experience. “I remember specifically having various conversations with various people, especially when COVID-19 first came around, about how two weeks elapsed in no time just dealing with what they have to deal with at home,” Earl said.

Mounir said coming to work after the hours were up felt “futile” at times because there were only groundskeepers, gardeners and custodians on campus.

The first 80 hours offered were based off of the federal Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act, Hubbard said. Earl described these hours as “use it or lose it.”

“Some of our members used it almost immediately; most of our members held on to it,” he said.

The most recent issuance of 80 hours can’t be used for child care; it’s for when an employee or a family member who lives with them contracts COVID-19. It can also be used if an employee experiences side effects of the booster shot, which UO requires for students, faculty and staff.

It is common for SEIU members to use COVID-19 leave for booster shot side effects, Earl said. Earl has noticed an overall decrease in members who used this round of COVID-19 leave versus the first round, in part because employee vaccinations have been effective — over 95% of UO faculty and staff are vaccinated — and in part because of the stricter nature of the terms of use. Some are also hesitant to use time away because they don’t want to run out of it, he said.

“I know for a fact that there is a low rate of people using the 80 hours of COVID-19 leave that they have presently, because it's much more guarded,” he said.

“While the university has not actively aggregated the use of these leave options, we estimate around 500 employees have taken COVID-19 leave during the 2021-22 academic year,” UO spokesperson Saul Hubbard wrote.

Outside of COVID-19 leave, full time employees receive eight hours of sick leave per month. The Oregon Family Leave Act also allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees to care for their sick children.

Earl said he’s thankful for the university’s generosity when it comes to COVID-19 leave. UO granted time off to people who ran out of leave and still needed it and made it easier for individuals who customarily do not work remotely to do so, he said.

“So, I don't want to try to state that they have not tried to be as flexible as possible and try to make everyone get what they need to get through this financially,” Earl said. “But there's also situations where it was far from enough.”

It can be harder for newer employees who have not accumulated as much sick time outside of COVID-19 leave to take time off, Earl said, and some SEIU members who contracted COVID-19 reported side effects a month later.

UO Provost Patrick Phillips announced Jan. 6 that UO is now following the updated guidance from the CDC, and employees should isolate themselves away from campus for five days if they have COVID-19.

Mounir contracted COVID-19 in November 2020 and had to use 40 hours of his own accumulated sick time.

Mounir said it’s easier to come to work and feel safe in the chemistry department, where everyone is wearing a mask and distancing and a few employees work remotely.

“While that's possible in the department of chemistry, when you think about custodian services, is that something that they can do? They can’t work remotely,” he said. “They can just keep wearing their masks and hope for the best.”