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Arbitrator rules in favor of NTU in COVID quarantine grievance

The Newark Teachers Union (Local 481) scored a major victory Nov. 23 when arbitrator Robert C. Gifford ruled that Newark Public Schools must repay NTU members what the union estimates is about $1 million in salary and restore sick days with regard to COVID-related absences.

The case started on Oct. 13, 2021, when the NTU filed a grievance alleging that starting Jan. 1, 2021, the Newark Board of Education violated their collective bargaining agreement by charging NTU members with sick or personal days while in quarantine for COVID-19.

Citing guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Newark BOE made a distinction between “quarantine” and “isolation,” writing in its legal argument that those classifications “require different protocols.” NTU members who were directed to isolate had to take sick or unpaid days; the union argued that quarantine and isolation meant the same thing.

“The parties, however, did not include an express definition of ‘quarantine’ within their Agreement,” Gifford wrote in his ruling. “I conclude that the broader, more commonly accepted meaning of the term ‘quarantine’ must be applied in this instance and, therefore, Article X.4.C encompasses all absences that were occasioned by COVID-19 as outlined in Paragraph 10 of the parties’ Joint Statement of Facts.”

NTU President John M. Abeigon (above) calls the arbitrator’s decision “not only a huge victory for the NTU and our members, but also in protecting the health and safety of school staff and students.”

“The Newark Teachers Union has had quarantine days as part of our contract for over 25 years,” adds Abeigon. “This contractual provision ensures that staff do not feel pressured to return to work against doctor, state and city guidance during a public health crisis. And unfortunately, that is exactly what happened during COVID. Even if staff were exposed to COVID in schools, they were forced to use their sick time, and in many cases, they were threatened with additional negative consequences, even when state guidance was clear that they were not allowed to be in work.”

“The NTU is pleased with the arbitrator’s award, though the battle should not have been necessary,” says NTU attorney Colin M. Lynch. “The district sought to deny paid ‘quarantine leave’ to members of the NTU who were directed by the district not to report to work and to remain in ‘isolation’ upon exposure to COVID under the dubious and now-rejected theory that a directive to isolate was somehow not a directive to quarantine. The arbitrator correctly concluded that the two terms are synonymous and that an order to isolate is in fact an order to quarantine. It is our expectation that the district will restore all affected members’ leave time immediately.”