UCI Gives Paid Medical Leave To English Lecturer Amidst Backlash

By: Oriana Gonzalez and Nicolas Perez

Vice Provost for Academic Personnel Diane O’Dowd granted Lecturer Andrew Tonkovich paid medical leave for the duration of Fall Quarter 2019 on Oct. 7 after receiving backlash for denying Tonkovich’s request to receive paid leave twice. 

Tonkovich, a lecturer in the UCI English department for 22 years and a graduate of the UCI MFA program, applied for paid medical leave in early September in anticipation of an emergency brain surgery on Sept. 23 to treat a benign tumor. He was initially denied paid medical leave and instead O’Dowd allotted him unpaid medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. This act entitles employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons for up to 12 workweeks in the calendar year

Under Article 12 of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between UCI and the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT)—the union that represents UC Non-Senate Faculty (lecturers) and Librarians—lecturers who have a full-time (100 percent) appointment for at least a full academic year that are unable to work for specified medical reasons will be granted paid medical leave. For the 2019-2020 school year, Tonkovich has a 75 percent appointment and is not guaranteed paid medical leave. 

“Under the terms of the contract negotiated and agreed to by the union that represents lecturers, medical leave is paid for full-time lecturers and is unpaid for those who are part-time. Mr Tonkovich is a part-time lecturer,” said O’Dowd when asked why Tonkovich was denied paid medical leave.

According to other provisions under the UC-AFT MOU, “The University, at its sole discretion, may place [a lecturer] on administrative leave with pay. The University will communicate the reason for the administrative leave to the [lecturer] as soon as feasible.” Citing this provision, UC-AFT officials argued that UCI should grant Tonkovich for paid medical leave because of his years of service.

“Andrew has done 22 years of service, and several—the majority of those years—have been 100 percent appointment,” said Honora St. Clair UC-AFT Field Representative for UCI and UC Riverside. “He currently holds a 75 percent appointment. So, on the technicality that he doesn’t currently have 100 percent right now, [the university is] denying him [paid leave].”

After Tonkovich was denied paid medical leave, UC-AFT representatives—President of UC-AFT Mia McIver and UC-AFT Bargaining Team member John Keeperman—met with representatives of the UC Office of the President (UCOP)—the arm of the UC system handling fiscal and business operations—and agreed upon the recommendation that Tonkovich re-apply for paid medical leave and request an exception to Article 12, Section D of the MOU.

Tonkovich submitted a revised request for paid medical leave asking for an exception to Article 12, Section D of the MOU on Sept. 18. Tonkovich underwent the emergency brain surgery on Sept. 23 and upon waking up, discovered that his request had been again denied.

“Before I went into surgery, everybody had their fingers crossed and imagined that this would do the trick,” said Tonkovich. “like, ‘Okay, this is a one-time deal. Here’s Tonkovich, he’s been teaching here forever, we can make an exception.’”

Members of UC-AFT launched a petition on Change.org after learning about the rejection to Tonkovich’s second request on Sept. 30 to urge O’Dowd to grant paid leave to Tonkovich. 

O’Dowd responded to the petition on Oct. 1, after it had garnered over 3,000 signatures, saying, “we are extending our catastrophic leave policy to allow Andrew to receive direct donations of vacation time from other employees. Many of our leadership team with accrued vacation hours have offered to donate their time to provide full compensation to Andrew during his current leave, that has already been approved.

“We value Mr. Tonkovich’s value to the university and understand that this was a difficult situation. Administrative and faculty leaders wanted to help, so we offered a possible solution,” said O’Dowd when asked why vacation time donations were suggested as a form of compensation for Tonkovich. “While his labor contract did not entitle him to paid leave, he could have been compensated through the donated vacation time.”

O’Dowd received backlash after suggesting that employees donate their vacation time to Tonkovich. 

“That response was completely unsatisfactory to the union,” said Tonkovich. “It was very disappointing and people were, to put it bluntly, pissed off because what it looked like was some sort of corporate neo-liberal charity thing.”

UC-AFT officials met with O’Dowd and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Personnel Marianne Liu Beckett on Oct. 2. Beckett and O’Dowd pledged to support Tonkovich’s seeking of paid medical leave.

Tonkovich applied for a third time and again requested an exception to Article 12, Section D on the morning of Oct. 7. He included a doctor’s note from his surgeon expressing Tonkovich’s need to take Fall Quarter 2019 off. By that afternoon, he received a letter from O’Dowd approving paid leave for Fall Quarter 2019 by exception.

“Based on clear policies and consistent practice governed by the union contract, your leave request would normally be without pay at UCI. We also understand the difficulty of this situation and our administration is eager to help in the best way we can,” said O’Dowd in her letter to Tonkovich. “All of us at UCI acknowledge your important contributions to our university. We all wish you a smooth and quick recovery.”

The UC-AFT MOU is up for negotiation every three to four years, according to Tonkovich. UC-AFT officials met with UC officials to renegotiate their contract on Oct. 8. In July, UC-AFT officials proposed changes to Article 12 during a collective bargaining session that would extend paid medical leave in cases of catastrophic illness or injury to all UC-AFT faculty.

“It’s my fondest hope that [Article 12] will be opened up for discussion by both sides, and maybe something good comes out of this struggle at least on one campus,” said Tonkovich. “I am a graduate of the MFA program at UCI, I’ve taught there for a very long time, and I’m just very pleased that both sides lived up to, I think, the expectation of the best that UC Irvine can be. I’m just a very grateful fellow.”