The talk of the industry for much of this year has been the COVID-19 contagious disease, commonly known as coronavirus. The private college industry is particularly exposed to fall out from this epidemic, as should be expected in a sector almost entirely reliant on international students, a huge proportion of whom come from China.
The outbreak has already caused a great deal of disruption in the university sector, with travel bans from non-citizens coming from China forcing thousands of students to defer their studies for the first semester.
University colleges, which include a great many IEU members, have been similarly affected Taylors College, for example (which runs Sydney University’s Foundation Studies program) has advised the IEU that about 40% of its enrolled students have been stranded offshore, and while the college has managed this situation as well as it can, it’s unclear for just how long the current arrangements are sustainable.
The IEU has been contacted by many members seeking guidance on how to proceed in the coronavirus environment. In the first instance, members should pay heed to the advice from NSW Health, namely to self-isolate for 14 days if flu-like symptoms occur, if exposed to someone with the flu, or if returning from a country where coronavirus is prevalent, such as China, South Korea, Iran or Italy.
The colleges themselves should be publicising their policy on this matter. What happens to students who present with symptoms? What should teachers do in those circumstances? How much support will colleges give to employees during the crisis? If your college has not yet advised staff and students of such a policy, members should insist that they do so, putting this request in writing.
The risks around coronavirus are only partly related to the disease itself. Of equal concern are the possible economic effects, as supply lines are disrupted, and consumer confidence dries up. For casual teachers and support staff in the private college sector, coronavirus represents an additional worry, as casual employees do not receive paid sick leave. This puts those employees in the invidious situation of taking the cautious route and staying home for two weeks (without pay) or turning up to work and potentially infecting people. Some schools are also suggesting to staff who do have access to paid sick leave that in the event that they travel to a country with travel bans in place, then they would be directed to stay at home for the 14 days, on leave without pay.
The advice from the Fair Work Ombudsman is that in circumstances where an employer directs or requires an employee to stay away from work, then that employee is still entitled to their normal pay. They cannot be required to take leave without pay or be required to access their sick leave.
There is little doubt that coronavirus will cause a great deal of disruption to the private college sector, and your union will be doing everything we can to minimise that. If you would like an officer from the IEU to come and meet with you to discuss how best to approach this matter in your school, contact your union on 8202 8900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.