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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? Will the granting agencies provide grant extensions?
  12. We are in bargaining or about to enter bargaining. Should we suspend or postpone negotiations?  What about grievances and arbitrations?
  13. Students are coming to us with concerns about border closures and orders to leave residences. What advice can we give?
  14. Our institution is modifying academic policies without due regard to principles of shared governance. How should we respond?
  15. Will academic staff be able to claim tax deductions for expenses arising from working from home?
  16. What can be done for academic staff currently on sabbatical or study leave, or those who are scheduled to begin such leaves this summer?
  17. Many academic staff are concerned that student evaluations of teaching will be affected by the shift to remote teaching. Should universities and colleges conduct student opinion surveys as usual?

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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 response benefit of up to $2000 per month for affected workers. Eligible workers may also defer tax payments until August.

Special COVID-19 Income Support Measures: Information for Academic Staff Associations

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? Will the granting agencies provide grant extensions?

The tri-agencies continue to post program-specific information noting adjustments to application deadlines and reporting due dates. Members should check the agencies’ websites for the most up-to-date information.

NSERC and SSHRC announced that academic institutions can immediately approve extensions requests up to 12 months for Agency grants with an end date between February 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021 inclusively, at their current funding level. Grantees due to apply in competition 2021 can elect not to apply for funding this summer/fall during these tumultuous times. For program specific details, please see the NSERC website.

CIHR will financially extend all existing Investigator-Initiated Research grants scheduled to expire between June 30, 2020 and March 30, 2021, for one year. The amount provided will be equivalent to one year of the grant’s average annual value. They will also extend all bridge grants provided to Nominated Principal Investigators in the Fall 2019 Project Grant competition with an amount equivalent to 6 months of their bridge grant amount.

Some of our members continue to incur costs (other than meeting and travel cancellations) that are being affected by COVID-19. Will the granting agencies make allowances for these ongoing and incremental costs?

SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR confirmed that the costs that are not covered by other sources of funds within the institution, and provided these expenses would otherwise have been eligible to be paid out of the grant, can be paid from existing grant funds. For example, individuals receiving a salary or stipend from grant funds may be recommended or required to self-isolate, and/or may be unable to work or telework for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The agencies is deferring to administering institutions to determine if incremental costs are consistent with the principles and directives set out in the Tri-Agency Guide on Financial Administration.

As part of COVID response, the federal government announced $1 billion in new funding for medical research, including $115 million for CIHR. Read more in CAUT’s response.

Additionally, the federal government is providing $291.6 million to support trainees, including students and post-doctoral fellow funded directly through the Canada Graduate Scholarships, Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships, and Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships as well as those indirectly supported through the various grant programs for investigators. The agencies will supply further details on the specific measures announced and the implications for each council as this information becomes available.

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Question 12

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 13

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 14

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

Public health protocols may continue to prevent governance bodies from meeting in person. However, governance oversight of academic functions and the approval of any modifications to academic policy should remain the purview of academic governance bodies, consistent with principles of shared governance. Administrative proposals, even when temporary, should continue to require approval by the appropriate body (Senate, faculty council, etc.), following the opportunity for thorough deliberation and for consultation with committees and other bodies. Senate should retain the ability to engage with administration on any matter, and provide recommendations to the Board of Governors on any matter within the Board’s purview, that the Senate considers important to the institution.

Associations should meet with management to discuss plans for the continuance of effective shared governance, including in accommodated online formats as the situation requires, to ensure that the Parties are in agreement on the nature of the accommodations and that these are consistent with the principles of shared governance. Associations should also secure an explicit agreement with management that any changes to governance protocols and academic policies are temporary.

In no case should administration use the current situation to bypass collegial processes or assume final authority for academic decisions. In no case should the public health situation be used as an opportunity to introduce or facilitate longer-term transformation of the institution.

Issues that associations, senators, and others should consider include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Institutions should avoid establishing parallel administrative decision-making bodies that function outside of governance structures, whether they include members of the academic staff selected by administration or not;
  • Senate and other governance bodies should be engaged early in any academic planning or policy-development effort, and should be given the time and means to consult and provide guidance or direction on possible courses of action (within the freedoms afforded under public health directives) before those are fully determined and well before that body is required to consider final approval;
  • Senate should retain the ability to initiate academic planning and policy-development efforts, and should not be relegated merely to responding to administrative proposals;
  • Regular Senate meeting schedules (e.g., monthly meetings) should be maintained, with special meetings called as necessary to deal with time-sensitive consultations, deliberation, and approvals;
  • Given current uncertainty about what public health protocols might be in effect during the 2020-21 academic year, Senate should consider scheduling meetings within what may ordinarily be its summer recess period, so that time-sensitive matters may be considered as necessary;
  • Meetings of governance bodies should remain open, including in online format, except where there is legitimate need of in-camera provisions;
  • Agenda packages and minutes for meetings of governance bodies should continue to be publicly available, and distributed according to the usual timelines in accordance with rules for sufficient notice of meetings;
  • All meetings of governance bodies should continue to operate according to principles of deliberative assembly and rules of order that permit thorough questioning, discussion, and debate, in which all members have equal opportunity to participate fully;
  • Decisions in all meetings of governance bodies should be made using transparent methods of voting, providing participants with the means to vote explicitly in favour, against, or abstain. Silence should not be taken as assent;
  • The Senate’s executive committee, on which a majority of members should be senators elected from the academic staff, should meet to consider these and any other issues for accommodated meetings and governance practices, and should ensure that all such issues are addressed;
  • At each of its meetings throughout this period, Senate and any other governance body should have a regular opportunity to consider the health of governance practices at the institution;
  • All discussions should include the institution’s plan for ensuring that members of governance bodies remain informed and for the sharing of information with the campus community about the nature of and rationale for decisions taken.

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, as well as their intramural speech rights vis-à-vis institutional decisions and direction. In particular, academic staff should have the right to determine the most appropriate way to provide alternatives to in-class instruction and labs, subject to polices set by academic governance bodies and consistent with the principles of academic freedom, to the extent that alternatives might be necessary.

CAUT encourages academic staff associations to use this opportunity to assess the state of governance at their institutions, including through identifying longstanding issues that may have been made visible or exacerbated during the pandemic response. Associations are encouraged to examine the processes for decision-making during the pandemic period and to take stock of areas of weakness with a view to strengthening shared governance as the situation allows.

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Question 15

Will academic staff be able to claim tax deductions for expenses arising from working from home?

Purchases of technology or home office equipment and materials may be reimbursable under your collective agreement, or potentially claimed as an employment expense for tax purposes if you are not reimbursed. Each employee should keep a record of all receipts, invoices, and any directions from the administration requiring them to work remotely.

The Canada Revenue Agency permits the deduction of home office expenses against employment income where the home office is the exclusive or principal place of employment (i.e. used more than 50% of the time). To claim these expenses, you will need to complete a T2200 Form (Declaration of Conditions of Employment) in the next tax year and have it signed by the administration. To be eligible, expenses must relate directly to the duties of employment, the employee must be required to pay these expenses, and the employee must not be entitled to reimbursement by the employer.

Academic staff associations should negotiate with the administration a reimbursement program to cover the additional costs members incur as a result of working remotely. If the expenses are not covered by the institution, then associations should negotiate an agreement that T2200s will be signed and made available to all eligible staff upon request.

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Question 16

What can be done for academic staff currently on sabbatical or study leave, or those who are scheduled to begin such leaves this summer?

Many academic staff currently on sabbatical or scheduled to go on leave in the coming months will be unable to carry out the projects outlined in their proposals due to travel restrictions, lack of access to libraries and archives, labs, and studios, and increased family responsibilities. Where collective agreements allow members to suspend or defer sabbaticals, associations should make members aware of these options. In the absence of such language, associations should negotiate with the administration to allow members to suspend or postpone sabbaticals until it is feasible to carry out the proposed work. In addition, no one should be disadvantaged in any assessment process or future leave application because proposed projects were delayed or not completed. Any funding attached to a sabbatical or study leave that is not used because of the pandemic should remain available for future professional expenses.

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Question 17

Many academic staff are concerned that student evaluations of teaching will be affected by the shift to remote teaching. Should universities and colleges conduct student opinion surveys as usual?

At the best of times, student opinion surveys have been widely criticized as a poor and biased measurement of teaching effectiveness. CAUT policy is that the results of these surveys should not be used in decisions concerning tenure, renewal, promotion, and merit. The weaknesses in student opinion surveys are acute today, as the student experience has been adversely affected by the rapid transition from in-person to remote instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some universities and colleges recognize this problem, and are not conducting student opinion surveys this semester. Where surveys are proceeding, the results should be provided only to instructors for their personal use. Some associations have negotiated policies where surveys containing discriminatory, harassing, or otherwise inappropriate comments are removed and neither provided to the instructor nor included in any aggregated results.

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