Update on Branch Response to COVID-19 Crisis

Dear fellow members,

As we head into the extended Easter break, we thought it would be a good time to update everyone so that we can go into the long weekend with a little less uncertainty about the university management’s response to the coronavirus. We know how much work everyone has been doing to juggle caring responsibilities, working from home, preparing for an entirely new way of interacting with and teaching our students — and all of this alongside the emotional toll of dealing with the ongoing crisis. We hope that you will take the full extent of this holiday to relax (to the extent that is possible) and step away from work entirely. We are going to be doing so as well.

Updates from Coronavirus meetings with HR

Since Tuesday, 17 March, the staffside unions (UCU, Unite, and UNISON) have been meeting with members of HR twice a week to represent and negotiate for the needs of staff during this crisis. We have been meeting with HR far more often than we usually do and we have been pleased to see that they have also been taking the current situation very seriously. We feel that our institution has worked with us in a collaborative and productive way. Our ongoing discussions suggest that we have been leading the sector in support for staff in the ongoing crisis. While there are still a lot of outstanding issues to address in the coming months, we have made some good progress in important areas like support for casualised staff.

We have been trying to keep you regularly updated with news from these meetings through emails and our online EGMs, but here are some of the main points.


We’ve been hugely successful on negotiating furlough conditions for staff on Casual Worker Agreements. Staff applying for the furlough scheme will be paid 100% of their expected wages at least until mid June. Around 1000 casually employed staff who are eligible will have received an email about this. If you’re concerned about your eligibility or hold multiple contracts, please email coronavirus@sheffield.ac.uk  We are really pleased with our success in this area and think we are the first institution in the country to offer this kind of support to casual workers.

We have made some progress on Fixed Term Contracts with a focus on those due to end before mid June. Some contracts have already been extended and some have been turned into Open Ended Contracts. We are still waiting to hear back from management about how they will process each case but they have informed us that they’re being “proactive rather than reactive” in their communications with individual departments and line managers.

UNICUS, which is a subsidiary that is fully owned by the University of Sheffield is refusing to pay its furloughed staff 100% of their wages. We have been working with the other campus unions to ensure that all staff across campus get treated equally and are working on a joint letter calling on UNICUS to ensure that all of its staff are treated in full. It is not acceptable to ask the lowest paid workers at this institution to make an additional sacrifice in pay during this crisis.


Support for staff

HR have confirmed there will be an extension to the promotion deadline. We have asked for clarity on what changes will be made to the promotions process but we are still waiting for more detail on what promotions will look like in this round

All restructures have been paused unless staff have specifically asked for them to continue. Similarly, all disciplinary procedures, except in cases of gross misconduct (or in cases where members wish to continue with the process), have also been paused. If you are approached about a disciplinary procedure please do get in touch with us.

We have asked for better working from home support and are waiting to hear about provisions to make reasonable adjustments for disabled members as well as risk assessments for home working including Display Screen Equipment.

Both ourselves and the Students’ Union have raised issues related to TUoS’ support of PGRs. The UCU and the SU will be working on this together especially as there is a lot of crossover between the UCU’s role in supporting PGRs as staff members and the SU’s role in supporting PGRs as students

There has been a pause on all new recruitment, however we have been reassured that each case will be considered individually. A new Recruitment Approval Panel has been set up to consider all new hires and they have made the following decisions: anyone who has received an offer and has a start date before 19 April is automatically approved; all cases where the start date is 20 April or after will be considered, and they may ask for additional information about some of them before approving them.

Staff are encouraged to take annual leave where possible. We know that in some cases this may not be as feasible owing to changes in term dates. Where this is the case, do ask your line managers for support.

Staying connected and getting involved in worker advocacy

Even while we are working from home, there are ways that you can get involved with UCU and other campaigns involved with coronavirus related advocacy.

  • After the Easter break, we will be holding another online EGM. Details on date and time to follow, but we hope you will come along to ask questions and hear updates on what is happening both locally and nationally.

  • Corona Contract is a new self-organised group of UCU members fighting for the rights of HE staff on precarious contracts. They are holding a zoom webinar meeting this Thursday night at 7pm which you can register for here. Attend to learn about how you can get involved in fighting against precarity during this crisis.

  • Take a look at general resources to get involved in fighting for workers’ rights, including the TUC Coronavirus webinar, and Sheffield COVID support map, which gives information on local mutual aid groups and community hubs you can support or volunteer with.


Dispute update

The intensity of business over USS has been unabated by coronavirus, with the board confirming that they will be going ahead with the 2020 valuation despite the unsettled markets and unknown ultimate economic effects. It is hard to see how a meaningful long-term assessment of the scheme’s health can be made based on the 31 March data, and the regulator is still to issue guidance to schemes with such a valuation date on how to proceed. That said, there is positive joint work going on between UCU and UUK on methodology which is being discussed with USS at the Valuation Methodology Discussion Forum.

In contrast, there was a brief halt in the negotiations in the Four Fights dispute due to illness. Discussions are going to begin again after the Easter break, with a planned meeting between UCEA and the UCU pay negotiation team. We will be able to send you a much more concrete update at that point.

On a central level, UCU president Douglas Chalmers has written to members of the National Executive Committee, expressing UCU’s intention to make sure that national meetings of the NEC, HEC, and FEC (Higher and Further Education Committees, respectively) will continue in an online format. The next HEC meeting is planned for the 24th of April.

In closing, please do have a restful weekend. We hope all of you are safe and healthy. As always, if you need any advice or support, please do not hesitate to contact us at ucu@sheffield.ac.uk.


Sheffield UCU branch committee