N.W.T. drops court case on COVID-19 sick leave for teachers
The Northwest Territories government has dropped its attempt to get the courts to cancel a special form of sick leave created at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but appears to be repeating the mistake that led to the court action in the first place.
The government initiated the court action only two months ago. It asked the N.W.T. Supreme Court to overturn an arbitrator's decision that COVID-19 leave should continue to be available for Northwest Territories teachers. The government unsuccessfully argued the COVID-19 leave should have ended last spring, when all territorial public health orders around COVID-19 lifted.
The leave was created in a letter of understanding the government signed at the height of the pandemic with both the teachers' association and the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) on behalf of the thousands of government employees it represents.
The government agreed to it after teachers and the other workers started having to use their annual leave and days off without pay to cover days they had to take off due to public health orders. The orders required people to self-isolate in a number of different situations, including returning to the territory after travelling south or when someone in their household tested positive for the disease.
The minister responsible for human resources, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek, said the decision to drop the court action was made after a second arbitrator — the one dealing with COVID-19 leave for UNW members — found there was nothing in the agreement creating the special leave that indicated when it would end.
"More clarity would have been ideal, but I'm pretty sympathetic to the fact that at the same time we were having those conversations (leading to the agreement on COVID-19 leave) the focus was still a bit of a crisis response, an emergency response."
The territorial government notified the courts Tuesday that it "wholly discontinues" the request for a judicial review of the first arbitration decision. That was a month after the arbitrator deciding on COVID-19 leave for UNW members mirrored the earlier decision on COVID-19 leave for teachers.
"Now that we've got both decisions back, we want to be able to move forward in a positive relationship with both unions," said Wawzonek.
Government presents unilateral take on COVID leave, again
Moving forward, the government is taking the same approach it took when it decided, without talking to the union or the teachers' association, that the leave ended when public health orders were lifted.
On Monday, the government released a new interpretation of the COVID-19 leave agreement, one it again developed on its own without input from the union or the teachers association.
It sets a limit of five days of COVID-19 leave for each employee annually, something that was not specified in the letters of understanding the government signed with the union and the teachers' association.
"This is not a solution," said Matthew Miller, president of the teachers' association.
Miller said he was notified of the government's latest interpretation of the COVID-19 letter of understanding last Friday. The government released new leave directives to teachers on Monday.
Miller said the best way to resolve the disagreement over COVID-19 leave is through collective bargaining. He said the collective agreement that applies to all teachers outside of Yellowknife expires in July. He's anticipating beginning negotiations in March.
"That would have been the appropriate way to do this," he said.
The Union of Northern Workers says it did not agree to the government's new policy on COVID-19 leave.
"We believe they are in violation of the arbitrator's decision and are pursuing all avenues available to us," said UNW President Gayla Thunstrom. "We have requested to re-engage the arbitrator to hear our complaint of this violation, and are looking at filing with the Supreme Court to request enforcement of the decision."