This is an update on HUCTW’s 2021 Negotiations with Harvard. Our Union’s contract negotiations with the University determine our pay program, our benefits, and other important policies and programs. With our current three-year contract expiring on September 30, 2021, HUCTW leaders started preparing for negotiations in March—surveying and meeting with members throughout the spring—and then began our initial discussions with Harvard representatives in late May.
HUCTW Lunchtime Meetings in March & April
Union leaders started preparations for this round of negotiations by talking and listening to members about their working lives over the last year and a half. In March and April, we invited Union members from every school and department to an initial round of lunchtime Zoom meetings with Union leaders. Over 1,000 members participated in more than 100 lunchtime meetings, during which we discussed the unique difficulties and experiences staff have encountered during the pandemic, as well as ways in which COVID-19 and its effects are likely to create a particularly challenging set of negotiations.
Negotiations Survey in May
In May, we sent our 2021 Negotiations Survey to all members. Almost 3,000 members responded to the survey – approximately 59% of our current membership. Union members answered questions about their financial lives and expenses; workloads; paid time-off; remote work; commuting; tuition assistance; and diversity, equity, and inclusion, and many other topics, including thoughtful written answers to open-ended questions about their experiences over the last year and half. HUCTW leaders have been reading and discussing the survey results over the last month.
These responses and meetings have provided Union leaders with invaluable data, stories, and concerns about members’ working lives during the pandemic that will serve as the foundation for our 2021 negotiations with the University, as well as providing vital support and guidance for our ongoing daily work to create a better Harvard workplace for members. We plan to provide a fuller report of survey results in the coming weeks.
Initial Negotiations Meetings in May & June
Our HUCTW negotiating team, made up of elected Executive Board members and Union officers, as well as Union staff Organizers, began preliminary discussions with Harvard in late May. These initial meetings have focused largely on the scope of the process, including:
- subjects to be discussed in negotiations
- who will be involved in our discussions
- how frequently we will meet
- each party’s goals and interests
- the collection and review of supporting data and information
The University’s negotiating team is led by the Office of Labor and Employee Relations and is made up of Harvard administrators from various Harvard schools and departments. HUCTW and management negotiators determined that we will meet together to negotiate on a weekly basis, and engage in regular conversations between meetings to plan the subject matter, attendees, and structure for each session.
Recognizing that the events of the last year and a half create an unusual set of circumstances and challenges for these negotiations, HUCTW leaders have expressed an interest in pursuing a shorter contract than in previous negotiation cycles (past contracts typically cover a three-year period), focusing on a few timely and important issues, in addition to the salary program.
HUCTW Negotiation Topics
Drawing on the survey and our many conversations with members over the last year and a half, HUCTW leaders have identified four areas that we believe are important to make progress on in the coming months, with the goal of reaching an agreement in advance of September 30, 2021: (1) the pay program; (2) tax on tuition assistance benefits; (3) diversity, equity, and inclusion; and (4) paid time off.
Additionally, the issue of remote work and other flexible arrangements is an area that HUCTW leaders are prioritizing for 2021, and those efforts are described in a separate section below.
1. Pay Program
Compensation has always been a fundamental piece of our Union contract, and it will be a central focus in this year’s negotiations. In addition to helping HUCTW members afford to live in one of the most expensive regions in the country and make economic progress in their lives, annual raises serve as recognition for members’ efforts and contributions over the course of the year.
It is clear that, despite the pandemic disrupting almost every aspect of our work, HUCTW members have been incredibly committed, resourceful, and industrious during this last year: finding creative ways to get the job done, taking on larger workloads and new responsibilities, building new skills and knowledge, and putting in additional work hours to accomplish Harvard’s mission.
Although a small percentage of HUCTW members worked on campus—primarily in labs, health care facilities, building maintenance and security services, and some libraries—the majority of HUCTW staff worked largely from home during the pandemic. Members took on new expenses due to working from their own homes, including costs related to utilities, office furniture, technology, and other supplies.
A significant number of Union members also lost family income during the COVID crisis, through reduced overtime and fewer earning opportunities for themselves, as well as employment losses or income cuts for others in their households.
The concerns and proposals HUCTW negotiators will put forward regarding the pay program will focus on many of these challenging realities of the past year.
2. Tax on Tuition Assistance Benefits
The tuition assistance benefits at Harvard are an extremely popular benefit among members, and one of the major reasons many staff choose to work at the University. Two years ago, in order to ensure compliance with current IRS policies, the University began withholding tax on graduate-level classes taken through the Harvard Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) if those classes meet certain criteria.
With the new TAP tax policy in place, a member in a typical Harvard Extension School graduate program could now have upwards of $3,000 in taxes withheld from their paycheck every year. For a member pursuing a degree through one of the more expensive Harvard schools, they could easily have $6,000 – $13,000 in new taxes withheld in a year.
After certain thresholds are met, the most important factor in deciding whether a member owes tax on a particular class is whether the class is deemed ‘job-related’ based on IRS guidelines. But many members report that departments are applying confusing or widely varying standards of “job-relatedness” to staff members’ courses, which means some members pay large amounts in taxes and others are discouraged from pursuing further education due to the high costs.
Although Harvard initially provided helpful transitional assistance to reimburse staff for some or all of the new costs, that assistance has ended, and members are now facing the full burden of the tax hit.
Over the last two years, many members have shared concerns about this change, expressing frustration about a large rise in cost to a highly valued benefit and confusion about what seems to be an uneven policy application.
3. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
From listening to HUCTW staff, it’s clear that while some members find the Harvard community to be welcoming and inclusive, others feel less supported and valued.
HUCTW leaders have always worked with individual Union members to help address workplace concerns around race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and disability, but this year’s negotiations provide us with an opportunity to strengthen our contract language in order to take a more focused and coordinated approach to tackling these issues across the University, a goal that we believe Harvard also shares.
In addition to our upcoming work during negotiations, HUCTW has put a special focus on anti-racism this year, creating a new role within our Union leadership—a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advocate—who will lead our efforts to promote anti-racism across Harvard, working with HUCTW members, Union office leaders, and University leaders to identify and remove barriers that can prevent people of color from succeeding and thriving at Harvard, as well as helping HUCTW Organizers on a day-to-day basis better support members of color in the workplace. This role will be filled by Tasha Williams, an experienced HUCTW Organizer and our Union’s elected vice president.
4. Paid Time-Off
COVID restrictions have affected HUCTW members’ use of paid time-off in notable ways. Some members have been forced to use most or all of their sick days or vacation days caring for dependents during the workday due to school and daycare closures during the pandemic. Others were required to use significant amounts of paid time-off in order to quarantine due to potential COVID-19 exposure in the workplace or elsewhere for themselves, their colleagues, or their family members.
To help address these needs, Harvard offered 10 days of Excused Absence for dependent “well-care” and also allowed staff to go negative into their sick banks, up to 14 days. The Excused Absence days for well-care stop being available in August and those who have depleted paid time-off banks will now enter the new school year with little to no sick time, just as hundreds of staff and students are expected to return to campus.
Conversely, we also heard from HUCTW staff who have been unable to use vacation time due to pandemic restrictions. These members’ vacation days are accumulating in their time-off banks, and in some cases, Union members are on the verge of losing vacation days when they hit their vacation accrual maximums. HUCTW leaders have also heard from HR offices and University leadership that staff amassing large vacation balances and carrying them over from one year to the next is an area of concern for Harvard administrators as well.
A Note About Remote Work
HUCTW members experiences with remote work during the pandemic have demonstrated that most staff can accomplish significant portions of their daily work from home. To many members, 2020-21 also illustrated the benefits of working remotely—including higher productivity, better work/life balance, and significantly reduced commuting. During our lunchtime meetings in the spring, remote work was by far the most popular topic of discussion after pay, and the survey results echoed this level of enthusiasm.
HUCTW has already negotiated strong contract language around flexibility and remote work with Harvard, including the idea that flexible schedule requests (including work from home proposals) should not be “unreasonably denied.” With this in mind, HUCTW leaders have identified the consistent and fair application of our existing contract language as a top goal for 2021. It’s clear from conversations with members that some departments are very supportive and accommodating of work from home requests and some are more restrictive or reluctant.
We are already helping individuals and groups of members who have reached out to us for assistance in working through departmental resistance to remote work. Please reach out to your HUCTW Organizer or our office (email@example.com) if you need advice or help in facilitating your own remote work plans. All conversations are confidential.
In addition to helping ensure access to remote work opportunities at the local level, Harvard administrators and HUCTW leaders are also collaborating on the Joint Working Group on Flexibility, a union-management committee created to encourage and facilitate flexible schedules and remote work arrangements for HUCTW staff and to educate the University community about the relevant Harvard-HUCTW contract language and its application.
Stay Connected to Negotiations
HUCTW leaders and negotiators look forward to sharing more details with you in meetings and in email updates as negotiations progress. You can always reach out to one of your HUCTW Organizers for an update as well. If you are unsure who your HUCTW Organizers are, write to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put you in touch with them. As always, please reach out to the Union office if you have any questions about negotiations or anything else you would like to discuss confidentially.