'Verge of burnout': COVID-19 a factor for universities, faculty in contract talks

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Editor's note: Since this story was published, conciliation talks between the Dalhousie Faculty Association and Dalhousie University have broken off.

When Dalhousie University administration and faculty bring a conciliator into contract negotiations this week, COVID-19 will almost surely factor into the conversation.

The Dalhousie Faculty Association — the union that represents about 1,000 Dalhousie teaching staff, librarians and counsellors — says the shift to online courses this year has drastically increased instructors' workloads.

"It's driven people to the verge of burnout," said DFA president David Westwood in an interview.

Dalhousie is one of the first Nova Scotia universities to see a collective agreement expire in the era of COVID-19. Westwood said faculty initially asked for a one-year extension, hoping the extra time would allow some pandemic-related uncertainty to resolve. But that proposal wasn't accepted by administrators.

Dalhousie spokesperson Janet Bryson said that's because "the effects of COVID won't be resolved, or even fully known, in the next year."

"Negotiating a new collective agreement with the Dalhousie Faculty Association gives the university some stability in what we anticipate will be [a] difficult time for all of our staff, faculty and students," Bryson said by email.

Negotiations between faculty and administration began over the summer and reached a stalemate last month. Now, a conciliator appointed by the province has scheduled two days this week — Monday and Thursday — to try to resolve the impasse.

Strike mandate over faculty pensions

Westwood said proposed changes to faculty pensions are the main sticking point. Earlier this month, DFA members voted 91 per cent in favour of strike action, and Westwood said that's rooted in the disagreement over pension reform.

He said he did not think the faculty's concerns about increased workload would lead to a strike, but they'll nonetheless be on the table.

Like all post-secondary institutions in Nova Scotia, Dalhousie quickly pivoted to online learning after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Westwood said that to get through the winter semester, many instructors stuck to their conventional lectures, but simply delivered them through videoconferencing.

When Dalhousie decided to stay mostly online for the fall semester, Westwood said courses had to be redesigned.


"Some people have said to me, 'Well, what's the big deal? You just turn a camera and start talking,'" he said.

"I don't think many of our members would do that as an acceptable way to teach at the university level."

He said redesigning courses for virtual delivery has doubled the workload for instructors.

Bryson said the university recognizes "that our entire community has had to change the way in which we work due to COVID-19."

"The shift to virtual operations has not been easy and the university is grateful for the ways in which staff, faculty and students have risen to the challenges of the pandemic," she said.

She added the university is currently discussing "how to adequately recognize people's work and contributions."

COVID-19 negotiations at other universities

For universities that, unlike Dalhousie, are not in collective bargaining this year, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has recommended that unions negotiate letters of understanding with their administrators as a stopgap to deal with COVID-19's impacts.

The St. FX Association of University Teachers in Antigonish, N.S., took that advice and signed a letter of understanding in the spring. The letter addresses potential issues with faculty evaluation, research and sabbaticals, among other things.

Even though St. Francis Xavier University has returned most courses to classrooms, teaching and learning still looks different than it used to because of public health guidelines — so faculty and administration just signed another letter of understanding at the end of September.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The latest one includes clauses for self-isolation support for new hires and sick leave, which according to the letter will be granted to anyone with flu-like symptoms without a requirement for a doctor's note.

Martin van Bommel, president of the St. FX Association of University Teachers, said the new letter doesn't address everything his members asked for, primarily financial recognition of the extra work they put in to transition some courses online. But he said clauses that were proposed for the letter and thrown out by administration will likely be back on the table when collective bargaining reopens in a couple of years.

"All associations across the country and all the universities across the country learned in this pandemic that you do have to prepare for these types of situations and you have to include language in your agreements on it," said van Bommel.