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COVID-19 and the Academic Workplace: Questions & Answers

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Canada’s public health agencies are continuously monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and providing infection control guidance. That advice is changing rapidly. In the meantime, academic staff associations and their members are facing many workplace issues arising from the spread of COVID-19.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has provided guidance below on how associations should respond to the most common issues and questions. As the situation is extremely fluid, we will be regularly updating this page with more information and advice as required.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Our institution has required classes to move on-line. How do we support members and protect their rights?
  2. How do we protect the rights of members who are ill or have been ordered to self-isolate?
  3. How should academic associations ensure that member rights are protected when institutions take COVID-19 emergency measures?
  4. Some or all of our members are still required to perform work on campus. How do we ensure they are protected?
  5. What are members’ legal rights to refuse unsafe work?
  6. What is the role of the Joint Health and Safety Committee in pandemic planning, response, and monitoring?
  7. Some of our members have had their hours and pay reduced or eliminated or their contracts terminated.  What should we do for them?
  8. Some of our members are unable to come to work because of unexpected childcare responsibilities or because they are caring for a family member. What are the employer’s obligations to accommodate these situations?
  9. If the campus is closed, how can members ensure care for animals and plants in their labs?
  10. Some of our members have had to cancel travel funded through a research grant. Will the grant cover cancellation fees?
  11. Will the granting agencies make allowances for extensions to competition deadlines?
  12. Some members received grants that required them to attend a conference as a condition of receiving funding. What should they do?
  13. We are in bargaining or about to enter bargaining. Should we suspend or postpone negotiations?  What about grievances and arbitrations?
  14. Students are coming to us with concerns about border closures and orders to leave residences. What advice can we give?
  15. Our institution is modifying academic policies without due regard to principles of shared governance. How should we respond?

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Question 1

Our institution has required classes to move on-line. How do we support members and protect their rights?

While associations should be flexible given the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, they should negotiate protocols for on-line instruction with their administration as collective agreement rights may be affected. Some agreements, for instance, require the consent of members in order to transition to on-line instruction. Language on intellectual property, health and safety, workload, and performance evaluations might also be affected. The agreement should specify that all measures taken in response to the pandemic are temporary and solely in response to an extraordinary situation.

Letters of Understanding to address on-line teaching should be developed that specify which elements of the agreement continue to apply, and which are modified or suspended. Any agreement to vary the collective agreement should specify the duration and conditions of the variance and provide for periodic review.

Academic staff should have the right to determine the most appropriate way to provide alternatives to in-class instruction and labs.

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Question 2

How do we protect the rights of members who are ill or have been ordered to self-isolate?

Employees who are ill or subject to self-isolation orders should continue to receive full pay and benefits, even if they are not normally eligible for or have exhausted regular sickness benefits. These members should not be required to provide medical documentation. Even where a medical absence is unrelated to COVID-19, employers should refrain from requiring medical documentation in order to avoid placing unnecessary strain on the health care system

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Question 3

How should academic associations ensure that member rights are protected when institutions take COVID-19 emergency measures?

Associations should recognize that certain rights in collective agreements may have to temporarily modified or waived given the urgency of the pandemic. CAUT is recommending that associations negotiate letters of understanding with their employers that set parameters around any changes. Draft language has been developed that associations may adapt to their specific circumstances and collective agreement language. This is not an exhaustive list. For more specific assistance, please contact the CAUT office

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Question 4

Some or all of our members are still required to perform work on campus. How do we ensure they are protected?

Administrations should follow the advice of their local public health agencies and take every reasonable precaution to protect members, students, and the public. This advice is changing rapidly, and associations should ensure that they are aware of the most current guidelines. In some cases, it may be appropriate to close facilities, modify or discontinue certain work, or permit members to work from home. Where this is not possible, such as the case of members performing essential services, the association should insist on appropriate health and safety protocols

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Question 5

What are members’ legal rights to refuse unsafe work?

Workplace health and safety legislation in Canada gives employees the right to refuse work that they honestly and reasonably believe to be unsafe. To exercise this right, employees must notify their supervisor and the perceived danger must be serious enough to justify a work refusal. A determination as to whether the refusal was justified or whether it is safe to return to work will be made by a government investigator.

An investigation will consider the nature of the work, any measures taken by the employer to mitigate risk, and whether the risk is inherent to the employee’s job. Associations should be aware that most investigations and decisions have largely sided with employers when employees have refused work over contagious infection concerns in the workplace.

Members who believe they are being placed in unsafe work situations as a result of the spread of COVID-19 should document what risks they are being exposed to in the workplace (e.g. physical proximity, frequent public contact, no access to soaps or sanitizers), and if there are any specific health risks for them (e.g. immune-compromised or living with elderly parent).

Until the investigation is concluded, the member must not perform the work that they feel is unsafe.  Health and safety laws prohibit reprisals or discipline when an employee honestly exercises their right to refuse unsafe work.

Some members may not be able to refuse unsafe work due to statutory exceptions. Hospital workers, clinicians, and laboratory staff may be limited to exercise this right if the safety hazard is a regular part of the job.

Associations should contact CAUT or their legal counsel when advising members considering a work refusal.

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Question 6

What is the role of the Joint Health and Safety Committee in pandemic planning, response, and monitoring?

The workplace Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC) is responsible for identifying workplace hazards and making recommendations on prevention and mitigation. The JHSC, the employer, and the association must work closely on a comprehensive workplace safety plan until the risks from exposure to COVID-19 are safely mitigated, and the workplace and community can resume normal activities. 

Part of the JHSC’s duties is to inspect the workplace for hazards. In the case of COVID-19, inspections now may have to be done through virtual means

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Question 7

Some of our members have had their hours and pay reduced or eliminated or their contracts terminated.  What should we do for them?

No worker should experience loss of pay or benefits as a result of the public health crisis. Several associations have successfully negotiated income protection for members. As institutional operating grants and tuition revenue have not yet been affected, associations should insist that members, including contract academic staff, receive their regular pay.

Associations should also direct members experiencing loss of income to resources being provided by the federal and provincial governments. By March 25, the federal government has announced $52 billion in direct support to Canadians, including an emergency care benefit of up to $2000 per month for affected workers. Eligible workers may also defer tax payments until August.

Should members become eligible for federal or provincial income relief, employer income protection plans may be coordinated with these benefits to ensure that income is fully protected.

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Question 8

Some of our members are unable to come to work because of unexpected childcare responsibilities or because they are caring for a family member. What are the employer’s obligations to accommodate these situations?

Human rights law in Canada prevents discrimination on the basis of family status and requires that employers provide reasonable accommodation. For example, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has issued the following statement on the current situation: 

An employee who has care-giving responsibilities should be accommodated to the point of undue hardship, which might include staying home. These care-giving responsibilities which relate to the Code ground of family status could include situations where another family member is ill or in self-isolation, or where their child’s school is closed due to COVID-19.

Associations should assist members to secure reasonable accommodations for care-giving responsibilities associated with the pandemic.

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Question 9

If the campus is closed, how can members ensure care for animals and plants in their labs?

Care of animals and plants should be considered as part of essential services. The association should negotiate a protocol for access to critical lab facilities much as it would during a strike or lockout. This protocol should specify the measures that will be taken to protect the health and safety of persons accessing the labs and how plants or animals will be cared for if the person normally responsible is sick or quarantined.

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Question 10

Some of our members have had to cancel travel funded through a research grant. Will the grant cover cancellation fees?

The tri-agency council’s guidelines (available at: www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Media-Media/NewsRelease) are updated regularly. Costs associated with cancelling or postponing travel will be considered allowable research expenses as long as they fall within agency policies. Check with the relevant granting agency for more details

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Question 11

Will the granting agencies make allowances for extensions to competition deadlines?

At this time the tri-agency is considering extensions to competition deadlines but has not yet made an announcement. Members should check the granting agencies’ websites for updated information.

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Question 12

Some members received grants that required them to attend a conference as a condition of receiving funding. What should they do?

The granting agencies are advising researchers to take travel precautions as advised by the Public Health Agency of Canada. They have not yet provided specific details respecting the amendment of grant conditions in response to travel restrictions and the cancellation or postponement of conferences. Members should consult the granting agencies’ websites for the most up-to-date information.

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Question 13

We are in bargaining or about to enter bargaining. Should we suspend or postpone negotiations?  What about grievances and arbitrations?

Associations and administrations should consider postponing any planned bargaining or other meetings. We encourage you to communicate with your Collective Bargaining Officer at CAUT to determine the best action plan for your association. If you are concerned about timelines, please consult with your provincial Labour Board to see if they have put in place special protocols in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. Associations and the administration may agree to waive any timelines until a specified date.

Some jurisdictions are postponing court and tribunal hearings or conducting them by teleconference. If your association has an upcoming hearing, you should contact the arbitrator for directions on adjournment or for assistance with making alternative hearing arrangements. You should obtain the consent of the employer if you plan to request an adjournment.

In all cases, the association should ensure that measures are taken to preserve time limits for grievances and referrals to arbitration

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Question 14

Students are coming to us with concerns about border closures and orders to leave residences. What advice can we give?

Many international and exchange students are worried about their ability to return to Canada from their home countries given border closures to non-citizens and non-permanent residents. Students should be directed to the campus international students’ office and their student union for assistance and guidance.

Some campus residences have issued eviction notices to students. Students should contact their student union, their campus housing office, and, where necessary, community housing services.

Students in financial distress may be eligible for assistance from newly announced federal and provincial funding programs. The federal government is also instituting a six-month interest-free reprieve on student loan payments.

For additional information, visit the web site of the Canadian Federation of Students.

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Question 15

Our institution is modifying academic policies without due regard to principles of shared governance. How should we respond?

The seriousness of the current situation demands appropriate flexibility in light of some need for expedited institutional responses and the likelihood that meetings of Senate and other large governance bodies are not possible. However, the approval of any modifications to academic policy should remain the purview of academic governance bodies, consistent with principles of shared governance. In many Senates, when meetings of the whole are not possible, authority is delegated to an Executive Committee on which the majority of members should be elected Senators drawn from the academic staff. Administrative proposals concerning changes to academic policy, even when temporary, should continue to require the approval of this or a comparable governing body, with the opportunity for consultation with other committees where the governing body deems appropriate.

In light of this, CAUT advises that academic staff associations examine their Senate by-laws to determine the most appropriate mechanism at their institution. Associations should meet with management to discuss any plans for modifying shared governance protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure that the Parties are in agreement on the nature of the modifications. In no case should administration assume final authority for academic decisions using the current situation as justification.

Discussions may include the institution’s plan for ensuring that members of governance bodies remain informed and for the sharing of information with the campus community.  Associations should also secure an explicit agreement with management that changes to governance protocols and academic policies are temporary. In all cases, academic staff should retain their academic freedom to determine methods of instruction and assessment within their assigned courses, providing these uphold public health protocols. In particular, academic staff should have the right to determine the most appropriate way to provide alternatives to in-class instruction and labs, consistent with the principles of academic freedom.

When assessing existing provisions, CAUT encourages academic staff associations to take stock of areas of weakness with a view to strengthening shared governance when the situation allows

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