Earlier this week, SEIU 503 joined the leaders of Oregon’s 7 public universities to send a letter to Oregon Governor Kate Brown calling for unemployment insurance protections for higher education workers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter asks the Governor to work with the Employment Department to extend unemployment insurance eligibility and increase access to accrued leave during Work Share for higher education workers.
Oregon state law prohibits education workers from receiving unemployment benefits during established vacation or holiday periods, but many 12-month higher education workers who would have been working through the summer recess are being rejected because of an incorrect interpretation of the law. Our letter asks the Governor to allow the Employment Department to receive lists from educational institutions identifying which employees would be employed during the summer if not for the pandemic and to continue UI benefits for employees on that list. We also call for retroactive benefits for higher education workers whose claims are denied but don’t return to work after the summer recess.
The Work Share program requires workers to be “available for work.” The Employment Department interprets this requirement to mean that workers taking sick or vacation leave are not available for work and ineligible for Work Share. In addition to encouraging workers to come to work sick during a pandemic or lose Work Share benefits, this policy also ignores recent guidance from the Oregon Health Authority and the Higher Education Coordinating Commission requiring universities to “review and revise where necessary sick-leave and absentee policies to minimize any incentives to work while ill.” Universities can’t effectively change policies in accordance with this mandate if the Employment Department does not adopt a similar interpretation of the Work Share requirement. We ask the Governor to clarify with the Employment Department that people are still eligible for Work Share if they use approved leave.
The letter to Governor Brown was signed by the Presidents of the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, Oregon Institute of Technology, Portland State University, Eastern Oregon University, Western Oregon University, and Southern Oregon University, as well as SEIU 503 Executive Director Melissa Unger. We’ll keep you updated on the Governor’s response to our request for relief that will keep campuses, students, and workers safe and not harm the financial stability of higher education workers during the pandemic.