Workplace Adjustment Requests Update, with Invitation to Provide Comments

On Tuesday, July 21, department chairs at Boston University were sent a memo that made a number of them angry. The memo was accompanied by a list of their department members who had filed workplace adjustment requests, indicating whether the HR Work Adjustment Request Team (WART) had decided they met the CDC high-risk category guidelines for Covid-19, or had noted instead that the department member had filed a request that involved entering reasons for wanting an accommodation in the “Other” box provided on the workplace adjustment request form. A clear implication of the memo is that the remote learning option must remain the exception, rather than the rule. The university has said that approval of requests for courses to be taught wholly online, rather than in conformity with the hybrid Learn from Anywhere approach, should be kept to a minimum. The memo asked chairs to talk to all department members asking for workplace adjustments, including those that HR has now determined meet the CDC high-risk criteria, to see if they might be persuaded to teach their courses non-remotely, in conformity with the LfA model. It might be inferred from this memo that the university is concerned that they have received too many workplace adjustment requests (from their perspective). This request to go back to people who have already had their doctors provide medical notes, and who HR have determined are eligible for workplace adjustments, was thought by at least some chairs to be an outrageous request, and some CAS chairs said as much in an unscheduled meeting the next day.

In a subsequent email to chairs that might reasonably be interpreted as involving back-pedaling (sent after the CAS chairs meeting, on July 22), administrators indicated that faculty who HR has confirmed meet CDC guidelines will, in fact, be permitted to teach their courses online. However, it is still unclear what will happen to those applications where faculty provided their reasons for a request in the “Other” box. In the afternoon on July 22, faculty who had requested workplace adjustments received individual email messages from Faculty Actions indicating that WART had confirmed that the faculty member falls in a CDC high-risk category. It appears graduate student teachers have yet to receive any responses, and that their requests will be processed after faculty requests have been processed.

What types of good reasons might have been provided in the “Other” box? Two that are particularly important are concerns with respect to childcare and care of elderly family members, and concerns with respect to anxiety regarding teaching in the classroom during this pandemic. The second communication mentioned above indicates that decisions regarding applicants who cite childcare concerns are to be dealt with at some point down the road.

I am opening the comments here, and intend to leave them open for quite some time. They will be lightly moderated, and anonymous comments (submitted using pseudonyms) will be allowed. The primary reason I am providing this space for comments is to provide a public forum for people who have their requests turned down. If you are commenting for this reason, please indicate what the nature of your request was, and what you were told about why it was turned down. Other comments are also welcome.

23 thoughts on “Workplace Adjustment Requests Update, with Invitation to Provide Comments”

  1. I wanted to add an important point about mental health. Anxiety is a broad category, but in my program (the WP), faculty raised issues around trauma, PTSD, and anxiety and panic disorders, to name a few — life-altering conditions (sometimes requiring medication) that can be triggered not only by mask-wearing and close confinement, but also by the unpredictability and awareness of threat that go with living through a pandemic.

  2. COM must have gotten an advance jump on it; I got a call about my form from my chair last week. I filled out the form hoping that would voice my intentions enough. I should have known that velvet-gloved strong-arming would follow. I’m not proud to say that I partially caved; the fear for my job superseded the fear of disease in the moment. If I had known about what is laid out in this post, I probably would have responded differently.

    1. Thank you for telling us about your experience, GB. It is interesting to hear that pressure was applied last week in your case. I have some questions: Were you applying on the basis of being in a CDC high-risk category, or did you apply using the “Other” box? If the first, were you informed that HR had confirmed that you were in the CDC high-risk category? The reason I am asking these questions is that I think it is important to ascertain to what extent BU employees have been pressured to effectively withdraw applications that were approved by HR.

  3. I am high risk and filled out the form indicating I was high risk. I faxed the form from my doctor. I was notified I was in the “other” category and would be required to teach in person. When I followed up they told me that they had not received the form from my doctor, which no one had communicated to me previously. I sent them the form again and was approved to teach remotely. Other high risk people whose requests are denied may want to follow up to confirm the faxed doctors form was received.

    1. Many people’s CDC medical documentation forms faxed well before the deadline seem to have been lost, but no follow up contact was made over this month. The commenter above is not alone in that.

  4. I had my request rejected. It was an “other box” request based on me being the primary parent for an infant (along with a 3 year old, and potentially a 6 year old depending on public school decisions). I am already scheduled to be taking a half-load for the year for paternity leave, so having that be all remote and keeping my exposure down would have been a great relief to my family. The response I received sounded pretty boiler-plate like as it did not respond to any of the particular details I included in my request.

  5. In our department, several full-time faculty were granted an adjustment to teach fully remotely, but were then removed from teaching certain courses, and faculty who either did not apply for adjustments or did apply and did not receive one are being asked to step into teaching those courses. It is clear that actual depth and continuity of pedagogy is less important than the commitment to and optics of offering in-person experiences.

  6. Same thing happened in our department. Most full-time faculty were granted adjustments to teach remotely, but are now being asked to teach something else now. Many have never taught the course they’re being asked to teach before, and aren’t particularly well suited to teach it. Faculty are being TOLD what they’ll be teaching, with little time to prep, and are being shuffled around regardless of whether it makes any pedagogical sense, but rather because it will give the students the hybrid experience that has been promised by the university. As so eloquently stated in the above comment,
    “It is clear that actual depth and continuity of pedagogy is less important than the commitment to and optics of offering in-person experiences.”

  7. We crafted a careful, unanimous letter from the faculty in our school, citing the hazards of what we teach given the phyical conditions etc, hoping to get support from higher admin for faculty having autonomy in terms of deciding how to best deliver our courses.

    We first submitted our letter to our Dean, asking for feedback on the language and hoping to garner support for this proposed action. Our Dean was NOT supportive of our letter. The Dean told our Chair that the letter calls too much attention to our program, raises too many RED FLAGS, and puts what we’re doing too much on the admin ” radar” The message was clear that submitting the letter or going public with it would be a mistake and that we would be better off just keep our heads down, our mouths shut. The suggestion that this covert approach might be more promising in terms of getting the desired outcome is deeply unsettling. Aren’t Deans supposed to support faculty? I am trying to get faculty to share here, but they have so much fear of losing their jobs. This is a nightmare.

    1. Let me just add that, based on our prior conversation, the letter in question is not a letter that has already been posted on this blog, and that the college in question is not CAS (this last fact is relevant because I get much of my information from CAS, which is my own college, but we all benefit from also hearing about what is happening in other colleges).

  8. Thank you Daniel, for providing this space for comments. The entire process is a clear indication of the oppressive system that is BU, which makes all of the lip service being offered around our internal work on equity and antiracism even more hypocritical. Look in the mirror BU, and see the system of oppression you have built and hold on to! The implied messages over the last few months are 1) we are replaceable: if you can’t teach in person we will find someone who will; 2) we are expendable:we have heard the discussions about calculating how many people (fac/staff/students) will get sick, 3) we are not valued: said to a doctoral student who teaches — take a leave of absence; and 4) we are not respected: we are not allowed to make rational decisions and live in accordance with our own risk calculations, calculations that sadly, must include the possibility of losing our jobs.
    Also very important in this process, but clearly overlooked or discounted, is the mental health of faculty, doctoral students, teaching assistants, staff, and yes, even students who are concerned with the health and wellbeing of their colleagues and instructors. Anxiety, trauma and grief are serious health conditions that are clearly occurring in the lives of many BU employees. But we’re sorry, they are not on the CDC list of risk factors.
    Living with persons at risk is another area where we can see how the oppressive system put into place is forcing many employees into a decision that could potentially lead to tragic outcomes. Concerns about childcare abound, and while not exclusively so, this burden seems to land on the shoulders of young(er) women at higher rates.
    It is a sad situation, to feel compelled to leave Anonymous in place of my name, but yet another aspect of this process is the way that trust has eroded.

  9. I filed before the deadline and had my medical paperwork in early as well (high risk x2), and I still have not heard either way. My chair told me that they’re sure I’ll be approved and asked me to consider teaching one of my fall courses in the spring if I’m approved for remote, but it’s unclear what’s going to happen. Not sure my fall students would want to take that class in the spring, if it would work in the schedule, etc.

  10. My CDC category 1 medical request was first mis-categorized as “other-no reason” and then I found out on Friday that the letter from my doctor was lost. The only way I found this out was because my department told me. I called HR, who told me to call BU Covid health, whose telephone options all resulted in error messages. I finally located the EEO staff person who handles the requests who confirmed my doctor papers were missing. No notification for a month that the documents were missing. My doctor is on vacation this week, and I have no recourse in the meantime. It looks like I’ll be rejected, after having my doctor submit the paperwork a month ago.

  11. Just learned that CFA was instructed by the University to only distribute the memo regarding workplace adjustments to Phd students, so none of our MFA students had the option to apply. The MFA students in our school (the only graduate students in our school) all have assistantships specifically to teach and are expected to do so as they offer the bulk of the courses for minors and non-major students. Their teaching also, no doubt, is a good deal less expensive for the university than that of the typical PhD student.

  12. The University is being very selective about which CDC guidelines to abide by in terms of assessing who is at risk. A representative from HR explained directly to me in an email that they are “aware that the CDC has clarified” (i.e. recently changed the the guidelines for) “the relative risks posed by COVID-19 that are associated with aging” which means that they are aware that the most current guidelines take relative age into consideration (a healthy 45 year old is more at risk than a 30 year-old with underlying conditions). Rather than engage at this level of detail in the most accurate assessment of faculty’s risk, and on the advice of the BU’s own internal “Medical Advisory Group”, faculty eligibility for a workplace adjustment due to age remains at 65 years of age and older. One can only conjecture as to why.

  13. I submitted a Workplace Adjustment Request Form when the form first came out in June. I am not in a CDC high-risk category. I have OCD and generalized anxiety disorder; I know that if I go to campus this fall, my mental health will deteriorate rapidly, as will my physical health. I will be consumed by fear about contracting and spreading COVID to my partner, my students, MBTA drivers and commuters, and other community members. BU’s fall reopening plan is unconscionable on its face, made worse only by refusing instructors the autonomy to decide whether or not we want to risk our short-term physical and mental health, as well as long-term disability caused by COVID.

    Today, I received an email from my program director that included from CAS: “HR has not made any determinations on requests in the ‘Other’ category. Departments and Programs must assess these requests directly.” It has been suggested that if we try to apply for fully remote teaching and are rejected by the dean that we may lose our class and be “encouraged” to take a leave of absence.

    We have therefore given private medical information that was never reviewed to BU for absolutely no reason. I won’t know the status of my class until sometime in August. This summer has been demoralizing and exhausting. I have no faith in BU to protect me or the best interests of me, my students, and our entire BU and Boston community.

  14. I submitted my request for a workplace adjustment, and although BU did confirm that they received documentation about two chronic health conditions, from not one but two doctors (my psychiatrist and my rheumatologist), they flatly rejected it. I received an unsigned email, in the bureaucratic passive-voice “it was determined the information provided did not meet the CDC guidelines for Increased Risk.” Bad enough that BU won’t trust us to make decisions about our own safety, but now they feel free to ignore our doctors. I echo the sentiment of the graduate student who wrote “We have therefore given private medical information … for absolutely no reason.”
    I am part-time, and I wonder if part time faculty are being treated fairly? When I first looked at the form very early on it had a box for “other.” But after they made adjuncts wait for their contracts, I noticed that the process changed and that option to check the “other” box had disappeared. There was no language in the email about talking to my chair or director or dean–though they did make a terse reference to the ADA accommodation process.

  15. Finally received an email this afternoon – with a request for documentation paperwork by 2pm tomorrow, July 31st or my request will be denied. The funny thing is – I checked the “other” box for child care reasons, so I am extremely confused what documents are needed. I have started the process of reaching out by email and trying to talk to a human at HR…. My experience seems to be apiece with a lot of the posts above in terms of crossed signals and general confusion.

  16. I’m a grad student with heavy teaching responsibilities. I also have diagnosed major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Self-care is always a challenge for me under the best of circumstances, but the idea of returning to a crowded college campus in the midst of a pandemic terrifies me. I was not given the opportunity to apply for a workplace adjustment, despite multiple requests. I was told that because I am designated as a “TA” (masters program) and not a “Teaching Fellow” (Phd) that a workplace adjustment didn’t apply to me, despite the fact that I am slated to teach my own class. As of this posting, the University still has failed to provide my school/college with any clarification on how they intend to handle assistantships and living stipends for masters students. This means that I don’t know whether I’m even going to be teaching my class in a month, and I don’t know if I will still receive my assistantship or living stipend. BU clearly couldn’t care less about its masters students, who they rely upon for a substantial amount of cheap undergraduate instruction. They completely left us out of the equation, and have made no effort to apologize for or remedy their oversight. And despite all of this incompetence, we’re supposed to believe that they’re capable of a safe return to campus?

  17. I am 66 years old and have yet to hear from COM about my request for a work place adjustment. Completed the form back in July and told them my age, which fits the CDC guidance for caution. I should be given permission to teach my class online. My Fall Journalism class currently has 17 students — I haven’t heard a thing, though I have requested clarification.

  18. This entire process of accommodation requests and negotiating our health is exhausting–and that’s exactly what BU wants. This isn’t the first time I’ve run into problems with the accommodation process and the Equal Employment Office. It took me 8 MONTHS into my job to get official documentation stating that I could modify my work hours ONE DAY/WEEK to go to therapy before work. The office frequently ignored my emails and lost my paperwork, even though my therapist faxed it over within 24 hrs of the request. This all feels like a slap in the face now, when working from home means that 9-5 is irrelevant as long as BU keeps moving. And now, just because it’s been dictated, my mental health conditions don’t even matter and I’m at the discretion of my department to return to the office. I haven’t heard back regarding the accommodation form (I put other), nor has my immunocompromised colleague. I am a young single worker and my family all lives far away and there’s no way I can visit them any time soon. Navigating this process alone in a pandemic is incredibly disheartening.

  19. I am staff and still haven’t heard back, probably because they extended the submission time until this Thursday. I have a health issue and live with someone who does, but after reading these comments, I have no faith I’ll get it.

    At this point, I’m wondering if it would be better to just quit and take my chances on evictions prevention. If I die in the hospital or on the streets, doesn’t matter either way if I’m dead, right?

  20. I am adjunct faculty just hired to teach health policy and law. After it became clear to me that BU was going down a dangerous path of in person classes, I requested an accommodation based on fulfilling CDC criteria and being with my 87 yo mother.

    I requested an accommodation (not adjustment) and was put into limbo being told by administration that

    “We do not have a final decision yet as to whether we would be able to honor your request for a workplace adjustment, but I wanted to be up front with you about the challenges we are facing in making this decision.”

    Here is my response to the Administration

    Dear ______
    There is no challenge or difficulty in this decision.

    When I spoke to_____ (senior faculty) I was told that the decision to hold in person classes was fluid and could easily change based on circumstances. We both agreed that there was a safer alternative, virtual teaching for all students, faculty and staff.
    Other schools of public health in Boston are holding only virtual classes. It is unclear to me why BUSPH would put students faculty and staff at risk when such an easy alternative exists. It is completely perplexing that a waiver was also being entertained.

    I remained hopeful that reason would prevail.
    At the point that I realized that in person teaching was still planned, I contacted my caregiver who recommended based on both my underlying medical conditions and my caregiver status that I should not expose myself to risk which jeopardized my welfare and those I care for.
    I am sure you are aware that a denial of my request for an accommodation (not adjustment) is a violation of the ADA. I am currently disabled from the practice of radiology.
    I am deeply saddened that this is even a topic of conversation. I have seen on social media many of the current faculty and graduate students express deep concerns about the choice to hold in person classes.
    It is hard to imagine that a premier School of Public Health with amazing prestige and reputation of BU would risk their good name knowing full well that inviting students from around the nation and internationally will ultimately lead to Covid infecting the campus and closure of in person teaching.
    It is also particularly ironic that a department of health law which teaches the critical importance of informed consent, requiring an explanation of risks benefits and alternatives when making decisions which affect health and welfare, would not allow students, faculty and staff to opt out and choose a safer alternative… remote teaching.

    I am also perplexed why BU a preeminent institution with a stellar reputation would risk the adverse press and the black eye which will likely occur when this highly risky strategy fails for NO real benefit. We are teaching adults not children. In person classes are not an exigent need for graduate school.

    I very much hope that finances have not been the primary driver for the current unfortunate in person policy which has also been mentioned in social media.

    I hope reason prevails and that not only will my request for accommodation be honored but that all faculty regardless of CDC risk factors be given the ethical choice to opt out.

    Kindest personal regards and Be safe

    Nick

    PS I would appreciate your forwarding this email to the President of the University

    Nicolas Argy, MD, JD
    | m: 508-397-6004 |
    Website
    http://www.nicolasargy.com
    “Making a Difference”

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