College Implements Telecommuting Policies in Response to COVID-19

In coordination with local public health authorities, the College has drastically limited the number of employees on campus and developed new telecommuting policies in response to the local outbreak of COVID-19. Employees working from home have been asked to sign a Remote Work Agreement in which they commit to being available by phone or email during core work hours. Employees who still work on campus have been instructed to stay home if they have a temperature of over 100.4 degrees or otherwise feel ill.

The College has also, in some cases, implemented a rotation strategy for employees who work remotely but come to campus periodically to complete essential tasks. 

These policies were developed last month in anticipation of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order, which was ultimately announced March 22. The order specifies that educational institutions like Oberlin can continue to operate for the purposes of “facilitating distance learning, performing critical research, or performing essential functions, provided that social distancing of six-feet per person is maintained to the greatest extent possible.” On April 2, DeWine announced that the stay-at-home order would be extended through May 1. 

Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries Alexia Hudson-Ward has worked closely with library staff and employees in other divisions to develop the College’s telecommuting policies. She spoke about some employees who have been designated as on-campus workers who have “essential” jobs to perform.

“For example, Bill Ruth, who is an [Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees union] member, is the facilities and operations assistant,” Hudson-Ward said. “It would be difficult for him to partner with me to make sure that the Mudd Center is tended to from a home location.”

Prior to DeWine’s stay-at-home order, the College encouraged employees to utilize their paid leave if they felt the need to stay at home.

“If you feel ill, have childcare issues that are unmanageable, or feel uncomfortable coming to work because of health concerns, you should not come in,” President Ambar wrote in an email sent to faculty and staff on March 16. “We will determine ultimately an equitable way to resolve these absences, but for now you should use your paid leave. If you have not accrued paid leave, please contact Human Resources so that we can find a solution for you. We are currently reviewing our leave policy to reflect the current situation.”

In a March 19 email to faculty and staff, Chief Human Resources Officer Joe Vitale asked that all employees take their temperature daily before coming in to work. He explained that anyone with a temperature over 100.4 degrees should not come in to work, per recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In an interview, Vitale also spoke to the College’s practices for accommodating employees. 

“Some union staff have an opportunity to accrue a lot of time,” Vitale said, adding that employees could also potentially qualify for the College’s short-term disability plan if they fall sick for a long period of time. “If someone has used all of their leave time, we are asking them to just give us a call. They should stay home if they are sick, and we’ll work with them to expedite anything medically-related.”

OCOPE President and Reference and Academic Commons Assistant Julie Weir said that the telecommuting policy was consistent with their contract, but that some concerns have arisen since the telecommuting policies have been implemented. Her chief concern was that employees who have been designated as essential on-campus workers have no avenue for negotiating other options with the College.

“The College has not provided any appeal process for employees and/or their direct supervisor,” she wrote in an email to the Review. “In at least some of those cases, the employee has a lot of work they could do in their home. Their only choice is to come to work or use their own time or go without pay if they have exhausted their time.”

OCOPE’s fellow campus union, the Oberlin chapter of the United Auto Workers, are also working to adjust to COVID-related policies in the midst of their ongoing contract negotiations with the College. In February, the College announced that it was considering outsourcing jobs currently held by more than 100 UAW workers.

For remote workers, The Center for Information Technology conducted an expansive effort to supply employees with the equipment they would need to do their jobs securely.

“In total, CIT has fulfilled 128 requests for technology from faculty and staff and we are still working to accommodate additional requests as they come in,” Ben Hockenhull, chief information technology officer, wrote in an email to the Review.

On April 3 President Ambar sent an email to faculty and staff stating that the College’s telecommuting practices would continue through May 1 following DeWine’s extension of the stay-at-home order. 

“Since the March announcement, Oberlin students, faculty, and staff have worked hard to comply with the order,” the email read. “The telecommuting practices we have put in place were created to protect the health and safety of our community, take care of the students who remain on campus, and ensure that our institution has the necessary people working on campus and from home to support the college.”

Employees with questions regarding these policies should contact the Department of Human Resources.