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Pandemic layoffs: United Steelworkers 1998

Union president on working from home, emergency benefits, safe transition back
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The university and the union are collaborating to minimize back-to-work risk. CORINNE LANGMUIR/THE VARSITY
The university and the union are collaborating to minimize back-to-work risk. CORINNE LANGMUIR/THE VARSITY

During the summer, U of T temporarily laid off 185 unionized workers due to physical distancing and lockdown measures shutting down its campuses. The employees included 92 administrative and technical workers represented by United Steelworkers (USW) 1998. 

The Varsity interviewed Colleen Burke, President of USW 1998, regarding the state of affairs for USW 1998-represented workers who were laid off earlier in the year.

The union has been working with U of T’s Labour Relations and human resources departments to determine which employees can return to work, as well as to ensure that there are proper safety protocols in place.

Most of our laid off workers returned to work in September,” Burke wrote. “The majority of our members are working from home.”

Despite the efforts by USW 1998 and the university to ensure job security, Burke noted that 50 full-time members are still temporarily laid off, while another 21 members were permanently laid off due to the pandemic

Continued financial assistance

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) — which provided eligible beneficiaries $2,000 per month — officially ended on October 3. Like many Canadians, union-represented workers at U of T transitioned from receiving CERB to Employment Insurance (EI), which pays benefits based on one’s average insurable weekly earnings.

The university and the union have been facilitating this transition. Burke wrote that “there are pros and cons” to the transition to EI. “For our full-time members, the transition to EI wouldn’t make a big difference,” she continued. “Casual members who didn’t qualify for EI or members whose EI has run out, will transition to the Canada Recovery Benefit.”

The Canada Recovery Benefit provides eligible workers $500 per week for up to 26 weeks if they are unemployed due to COVID-19 and are not eligible for EI.

U of T has also made considerable efforts to provide financial support for affected workers. “U of T supplemented any CERB payments received by impacted individuals for the duration of the CERB program, and maintained benefits coverage for all employees for the duration of their temporary layoff,” a U of T spokesperson wrote in an email to The Varsity.

“For any employees remaining on temporary layoff who transitioned to Employment Insurance (EI), U of T developed another temporary income top-up identical to the top-up provided to employees on CERB,” they continued. “These employees will also receive benefit continuation for the entirety of their temporary layoff.”

The university provided no comment regarding any benefits or relief measures for employees who had been permanently laid off.

An uncertain future

With COVID-19 cases rising and the City of Toronto in lockdown, it is uncertain what the future holds. “The University of Toronto is guided by the principles laid out by the Province of Ontario, as well as municipal requirements. The requirements of the province and local public health will be followed as in effect at any given time,” the spokesperson noted in the email.

With government rules and COVID-19 measures changing constantly on the severity of the situation, this leaves many workers unsure about when they may expect to return to work.

Burke recognizes the difficulties of solely relying on government support. “While people are happy to have the support, it can be very hard to support yourself and your family on this income assistance,” she explained.

The university has stressed that its ongoing priority will be safety. “At every step, our top priority will continue to be the health and safety of our students, faculty, librarians, and staff,” the spokesperson noted.