As the MERS outbreak leads to the closures of schools and hagwons across the country, an increasing number of teachers are facing pay reductions or the cancellation of their regular vacations.
Hagwons and schools closed after pressure from parents worried about the spread of MERS, which they fear might enter the community. So far all infections have occurred in hospitals, but many hagwons are facing dwindling enrollment ― and falling revenue ― due to parent jitters.
Jessi Kidd Carpenter, who works for an after-school programme in Seoul, said his vacation was scheduled to start July 23, but was told Monday that his vacation had been rescheduled to this week.
"I have booked flights to India and have begun the visa process. Luckily hotels were not booked yet," he said.
"My company has told me that I 'can' pay for a substitute to go on my originally planned vacation. They have not any regard or apology for the change of vacation mid 'vacation' and do not plan to accommodate for those teachers who had already paid for trips that will now be cancelled," Carpenter added.
A Korean teacher at a hagwon in Gyeonggi Province said she had booked flights for that same week, but was told Monday that this week would be her vacation.
"We told our boss that it is unfair, as we have booked travel with friends and family and they said there is nothing we can do about it and it is an emergency in Korea," she said.
She said she hadn't decided whether to cancel her flights, but was angry about the way the situation had been handled and the way the industry treated its staff in general.
"We are just wasting our precious vacation time sitting at home getting stressed about canceling all our plans. Vacation should be recovery from all the stress from our work to start afresh next semester with a fresh mind."
Jung Bong-soo, a labour attorney at Kang Nam Labor Law, said that it was not possible to reschedule annual leave in this way without employees' consent.
"This suspended period cannot be replaced by the annual paid leave unless the workers agree on this replacement of their leave according to Article 62 of the Labor Standards Act,"
Several teachers argue that, since the schools were closed at the discretion of the management, the school is liable to pay them for the time off and give them regular vacation. They cite a labour law clause that states that suspensions attributable to the employer require teachers to be paid 70 per cent of wages.
However, it is not clear that the labour board or courts would agree. In the view of Jung, the suspension is more akin to a natural disaster and not attributable to the employer.
"This means that teachers can be requested to take the suspension without pay," he said.
However, he said that if the teachers were not paid for the suspension and then asked to work during their scheduled vacation, they would have to pay for overtime or holiday work.
"Annual paid leave cannot be reduced due to the company's situation or conditions," he said. "If the employees cannot take annual leave days, those unused leave days should be compensated with monetary compensation."