Issues | LEARNING CURVE

With the coronavirus canceling classes, what are English teachers to do?

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s request that all elementary, junior high and high schools close during the month of March to curb the spread of the new coronavirus caught many in Japan off guard. One demographic that might be feeling the confusion more than most are non-Japanese foreign-language teachers.

“We were staying with friends in Aichi. The husband in the family is a junior high school teacher, so we heard it from him before it broke on the news,” one person working for an ALT dispatch company tells The Japan Times. [The instructor asked to remain anonymous since they weren’t approved by their work to speak to the press.]

The Aichi-based teacher had just arrived in Japan and was in the process of moving.

“I’m concerned about the possibility of not being paid as scheduled,” the teacher says. “We arrived with a finite amount of money assuming that work would start at the beginning of April, but there’s a lot of uncertainty now.”

This sense of uncertainty is shared by both new arrivals to Japan and experienced instructors alike, according to conversations unfolding on social media platforms such as Twitter, Reddit and Facebook. As the decision on what to do rests with individual boards of education, some reported confusion at their workplaces, while others speculated they will still be expected to come into school for work during March. Many remain in limbo, waiting to see what happens in their specific circumstances.

A familiar industry maxim — “every situation is different” — resonates more than ever in this situation, and a post on the Teaching In Japan sub-reddit might sum it up best: “This will be a sh-t show for dispatch ALTs.”

“We have had a few reports of our members working in dispatch or at eikaiwa (English conversation) companies canceling work and telling our members to stay home. Nothing widespread yet, but we are monitoring the situation,” says Gerome Rothman, field director for Tozen Union. [Tozen also represents employees at The Japan Times.] “Berlitz and Shane have been talking about it. Also many students are canceling lessons.”

The situation is similar with those taking part in the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme, though things may not be too different from your typical March.

“The situation for ALTs will vary widely. Many ALTs will continue to report to their workplaces, and simply have no classes to teach as there are usually fewer classes at this time of year,” says Rachel Boellstorff, national chair for AJET (Association for Japan Exchange & Teaching). “It may not represent a substantive difference to the ALT’s life.”

While every professional in the English-teaching industry will face different circumstances, there are commonalities everyone should keep in mind during this unprecedented situation.

“In the case that ALTs are required or recommended to stay at home, the situation becomes more complicated,” Boellstorff says. “According to Japanese labor laws, I understand that no one should receive less than 60 percent of their salary while they are told to stay at home. Where applicable, JET’s contracts might ensure an ALT receives their usual salary, if for example their ability to get to work is compromised by situations out of their control. Unfortunately, we are receiving reports that some workplaces have decided they will not be paying ALTs at all during this period. As I understand it, this stance does not comply with Japanese law.”

Rothman goes further, saying that companies — including private dispatch and eikaiwa — should be paying employees that are requested to stay home their full salary.

“We don’t think COVID-19 falls into the 60 percent category. Some employers claim that the COVID-19 crisis is a natural disaster outside their control, exempting them from paying any wages — like an earthquake that makes business impossible. We are nowhere near that scene in the disaster movie yet.”

The kids behind the masks: Elementary school students have been asked to stay home in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. | GETTY IMAGES
The kids behind the masks: Elementary school students have been asked to stay home in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. | GETTY IMAGES

Dennis Tesolat, chair of the General Union, says that if employees find themselves sent home and not getting the proper amount of pay, “They should first tell the employer clearly that they don’t accept the layoff and that they’ll go to the Labor Standards Bureau. (The employee) could also demand use of their paid holidays to cover the day, but they shouldn’t be tricked into using paid holidays to cover these days.”

Dispatch companies such as Interac are monitoring the situation and providing updates online. Staying healthy should be the top priority for anyone.

“This almost goes without saying, but wash your hands in soap and water, and stay home if you have a fever,” Boellstorff says. Making sure that ALTs have the proper household goods and food items on hand in case they have to stay home for an extended period of time is also a must.

Employees should also know who the onus for safety falls on.

“If management orders you to wear a mask or use hand sanitizer, then they must provide that to you,” Rothman says. “Masks are difficult to find these days, so the employer might ask you to bring your own, but they should reimburse you for it. Workplace safety is the responsibility of management, not the employee.”

Both the General Union and Tozen Union have shared guides for workers on their websites.

“This issue has brought to our attention that JET contracts don’t specifically have assurances for cases like this. While JETs are protected from financial harm if their home is destroyed by a natural disaster, for example, there is nothing to specifically protect a JET in the case that a serious illness or natural disaster causes their workplace to be closed,” Boellstorff says, going on to say that situations such as the one we face present a good opportunity for ALTs to review their contracts and consider joining AJET to help make changes.

Perhaps the most important reminder at a time full of fast-moving updates and uncertain developments is to not get too worked up by it all.

“Keep calm and try to take care of yourself as best you can,” Boellstorff says. “Don’t lose touch with your support network, and reach out for help if you need it. Please make sure you’re registered with the nearest embassy or consulate for your country, have any necessary medications on hand, and keep up to date on the news.”

Both the General Union and the Tozen Union have posted articles on how the new coronavirus could impact the workplace. For more information, visit them at bit.ly/38brbPy and bit.ly/2uNHSD3, respectively.

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