The AU and AUFA bargaining committees met with the new mediator on Friday, March 11, 2022. We are committed to a professional and respectful collective bargaining process, and we welcomed the support of the mediator in our most recent round of discussions. It has been brought to my attention that there are some misconceptions about AU’s proposal as it relates to Research and Study Leave, and as the co-chair for AU’s bargaining committee, I wanted to take this time to clarify a number of items.
Before that, I want to stress that AU respects the value of our Academic and Professional Staff Members. I know that all of us also take seriously our responsibilities to learners, and want to ensure that we do everything possible to minimize disruptions and anxiety to learners as a result of bargaining.
Research and Study Leave for Professionals
As you likely know, AU is proposing to remove Research and Study Leave for individuals in Professional Staff Member roles (Professionals) within the AUFA bargaining unit. AU is not proposing to remove Research and Study Leave for those in Academic Staff Member roles (Academics).
The bargaining committee has received questions from AUFA members asking why AU is proposing to treat Professionals and Academics differently in this regard. In short, it is because the work of Professionals and Academics is different. As part of their role, Academics are required to fulfill teaching, research, and service obligations. Research and Study Leave (often called sabbatical at other institutions) is one way that post-secondary institutions elevate the academy and how Academics fulfill their research obligations. Professionals do not have these same obligations.
These differences are highlighted in how Academics and Professionals have historically used Research and Study Leave. We have also been asked about the usage of Research and Study Leave for Professionals. Over the past six years, approximately 45 of the 74 Research and Study Leaves taken by Professionals have been four months or less and often part-time. Research and Study Leave applications filed by Professional Staff Members overwhelmingly indicate that the purpose of the leave is to complete AU MBA coursework (which is generally completed in 8-week segments), a semester of undergraduate courses, or certificate programs at AU or another Alberta post-secondary institution. Academics, on the other hand, generally take a 12-month Research and Study Leave to complete research with the intention of publishing and disseminating their research. This research is often funded in part by external grants, and is sometimes completed in partnership with other organizations.
No other Alberta post-secondary institution provides sabbatical to employees in the same roles as Professional Staff Members within the AUFA bargaining unit. The University of Alberta does provide a “Professional/Educational Leave” to some of its senior professionals who are responsible for providing leadership, strategic advice, and direction within the institution, but the circumstances in which the leave will be granted are limited. The leave also does not accrue over time. Further, the leave requires the employee to sign a return to service agreement, stipulating they will repay salary amounts received if they leave the institution within a specific return period.
Enhancing professional development opportunities for Professionals
To be clear, AU is committed to continuing its support of Professionals in furthering their professional development and career goals. This is one of the reasons that AU offers a $2000 annual development fund and a separate Professional Development Leave entitlement to AUFA members.
Currently, AU is the only institution in Alberta that offers 21 working days (approximately one calendar month) of fully paid Professional Development Leave every year to members of its Faculty Association. Many Professionals who use Professional Development Leave do so in order to facilitate the completion of undergraduate and graduate studies without the 20% loss of pay that is associated with Research and Study Leave.
While less than 30% of Professionals have taken any Research and Study Leave over the past six years, between 60% and 70% of Professionals use Professional Development Leave each year.
In addition, AU continues to support Professionals, as well as their spouses and dependents, through access to AU degree programs at no cost through either tuition waiver or tuition reimbursement up to a full load equivalent. While some other post-secondary institutions offer a limited number of tuition-free or reduced tuition courses, they do not provide free full-time learning in degree-granting programs to employees and their families.
Compensation for Professionals
AU has offered a one-time cash payment of $2.1 million to Professionals in exchange for foregoing accrued Research and Study Leave. The proposal, as tabled on February 28, 2022, was to distribute the lump sum equally amongst Professionals with accrued Research and Study Leave. Claims that this amounts to “pennies on the dollar” are simply not true. There is no cash value to Research and Study Leave accrual for Professionals. Staff Members who leave AU without having exhausted accrued Research and Study Leave do not receive a payout for it. Further, and unlike the lump sum payment being offered, Research and Study Leave is not “new” money in the pockets of Professionals. It is not compensation on top of regular salary, but rather a wage replacement.
It is also very important that AUFA members are aware that this offer cannot be continued beyond March 31, 2022.
AU is only able to offer this one-time payment as a result of an unexpected one-time forecasted favourable operating budget variance. The reason for this is that it will be sourced from one-time savings experienced in the current fiscal year, ending March 31, 2022. Under generally accepted accounting principles, AU must have a ratified agreement that substantiates the obligation in place before the year-end (March 31, 2022). This was communicated to AUFA on February 28, 2022, when the proposal was tabled. We believe it is important that AUFA members get a say on this proposal, and I am hopeful that AUFA will provide its members with a timely opportunity to vote on it before these funds expire.
If you have questions, we are committed to providing more information and clarification to the extent possible under the terms agreed to with the mediator. We welcome your questions. Please continue to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will continue to update the FAQs on our bargaining website.
Dr. Alain May
Co-chair Board Bargaining Committee