Teachers with the Northwest Territories Teachers' Association will get to keep COVID-19 leave in their current contracts.
In 2021, the association and the Northwest Territories government signed a letter of understanding, essentially an agreement that created a new special type of leave for teachers sick with COVID-19. It meant teachers wouldn't have to use their annual sick leave if they caught the virus.
When public health orders around COVID-19 were lifted last spring, the government told the teachers' association that special leave was no longer available.
Matthew Miller, president of the teachers' association, challenged that notion. He argued the agreement in place states it was for as long as COVID was a threat, within the current contract, rather than when the restrictions lifted.
He also pointed out that the government of Canada said concerns around COVID-19 remain even after the public health order lifted, and that teachers and their families were still getting COVID, and that there still had to be some school closures.
In a recent decision, Andrew Sims, an arbitrator for the case, agreed with the association that there was no set end date in place for the agreement for the leave, meaning teachers remain eligible for COVID special leave.
"There is nothing … that speaks expressly to when the commitment would end," he wrote in his decision.
"On this language alone, I cannot see any obvious intention that the parties would presume that Public Health Orders would always remain in force should the impact of the COVID pandemic continue or vice versa, that once the Public Health Orders expired, 'the impact of the pandemic' would be over."
Sims said the agreement, "on its face," seems to mean that its term "will continue through the actuality of the impact of COVID-19 rather than expiring once Public Health Orders were lifted."
It's still possible the COVID-19 leave could be taken out of the teachers' contract or changed in the next round of negotiations, which are due to happen this summer. The current contract expires on July 31.
"I uphold the grievance and declare that the Letter of Understanding remains in force until the parties agree otherwise, which may well occur once the next round of negotiations begin," Sims wrote.
It's unclear if Sim's decision to uphold the COVID leave will also apply to the thousands of government employees represented by the Union of Northern Workers. The government signed an identical agreement on COVID sick days with that union too.