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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? Will the granting agencies make allowances for these ongoing and incremental costs?
  12. COVID has impacted my ability to conduct my regular research and training activities. Will the granting councils make concessions when reviewing applications?
  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?
  18. We are in bargaining or about to enter bargaining. Should we suspend or postpone negotiations?

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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 online instruction with their administration as collective agreement rights may be affected. Some agreements, for instance, require the consent of members to transition to online 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 online 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?

It is CAUT’s position that 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 be 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. You may also wish to consult the collection of more than 100 Letters of Understanding / Joint Statements negotiated in response to COVID-19 found on CAUT’s COVID-19 Resources for Members website.

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

To assist  in discussions between academic staff associations and academic governance bodies, please see CAUT’s guidelines for re-opening campuses.

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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. If the employee is not satisfied with the supervisor’s response, a government inspector will investigate and determine whether the refusal was justified or whether it is safe to return to work.

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. The employee may appeal the investigator’s decision.

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. The employer may temporarily reassign the employee to perform other work.

Some members may have a limited right 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.

Please consult the Workers Health & Safety Centre to read information about how to conduct effective workplace inspections.

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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 the impact on institutional operating grants and tuition revenue is not yet known, 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. 

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.”

In British Columbia, it is more difficult to assert a right to be accommodated for family caregiving. The BC Human Rights Commission has issued the following statement:

  • Human rights law in B.C. requires that an employer accommodate an employee’s care-giving responsibilities to the point of undue hardship if the employee’s terms and conditions of employment have changed and that change has resulted in a serious interference with a substantial parental or other family duty or obligation.
  • This duty to accommodate may apply to situations where an employee is suddenly required to work from home (a change to a term or condition of employment) but is unlikely to apply to workers whose terms and conditions of employment have not changed but who no longer have child care available to them as a result of a daycare or school closure.
  • Given these extraordinary times, however, the British Columbia government has amended the Employment Standards Act to provide leave without pay to employees who are unable to work because of a need to care for a child as a result of a daycare or school closure. This means that if you need to take leave for these reasons, your employer cannot fire you for being absent from work. The amendments are retroactive to January 27, 2020

Associations should assist members to secure reasonable accommodations for care-giving responsibilities associated with the pandemic. The test for “reasonable accommodations” changes depending on the province. In all cases, the lack of accommodation by the employer must result in real difficulties for the member’s family – more than convenience or preference.

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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 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 financially extended 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 also extended 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 deferred 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 provided $1 billion in new funding for medical research, including $115 million for CIHR. Read more in CAUT’s response.

Additionally, the federal government provided $291.6 million to support trainees, including students and postdoctoral 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.

Funding to research grant holders was provided at the end of September to help them continue to support trainees and research support staff personal. Grant holders were required to attest that there were indeed interruptions to the work of trainees and research support personnel caused by COVID-19, and that the additional funding would be used to support them. Details from each council on how this additional funding was implemented, including FAQs, can be found here:

Due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions and social distancing requirements, peer review committee meetings in the 2020-21 fiscal year for NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR programs as well as tri-agency programs, will be conducted by video or teleconference. Given this temporary measure, they are reimbursing individuals for expenses related to dependent care and phone and Internet costs incurred during virtual peer review process.

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Question 12

COVID has impacted my ability to conduct my regular research and training activities. Will the granting councils make concessions when reviewing applications?

NSERC published guidelines on the consideration of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on research and training activities providing direction on how to describe these impacts in funding applications. The guidelines also include information on how these COVID-19-related impacts will be considered in the review of contributions to research and training plans.

CIHR announced an enhanced set of commitments aimed at fostering a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive research funding system. Included in these commitments were actions to help address inequities resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting with the Fall 2020 Project Grant competition, CIHR applicants will have the option of completing an additional page in their application to highlight how COVID-19 has impacted their research, productivity, and career progression.

Similarly for SSHRC, for the upcoming competition cycle, applicants have the following options:

  • Contingency plans may be included in the detailed description section of the application. These will be assessed through the feasibility criteria. 
  • Impacts on career may be described in the Career Interruptions and Special Circumstances section of the SSHRC CV.

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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.

Note that the federal government amended travel restrictions (as of October 20) allowing international students to enter Canada if their designated learning institution have a provincial/territorial approved COVID-19 readiness plan in place. The list of institutions with an approved COVID-19 readiness plan are posted on the Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada’s web page

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?

Associations should avoid providing specific tax advice to members. However, associations can ensure that members are made aware of any changes from the CRA that may benefit them. 

There are two categories of expenses that relate to working from home: (a) employment expenses and (b) workspace in the home expenses. Typically, to claim eligible expenses of either kind, a member will need to file a completed T2200 Form (Declaration of Conditions of Employment) in the next tax year and have it signed by the administration.

Employment expenses, including purchases of technology or home office equipment and materials necessary for work, may be reimbursable under your collective agreement. If not reimbursable, such expenses could potentially be claimed as employment expenses for tax purposes. Each employee should keep a record of all receipts, invoices, and any directions from the administration requiring them to work remotely.

Eligible workspace in the home expenses include supplies consumed in use (e.g. printer ink, paper, and stationary), the cost of electricity, internet and maintenance. These amounts must be reasonable, and proportional to the amount used for work. Ineligible home office expenses include property taxes,  home insurance, or the notional rental value of the space used for the home office.

On December 15, 2020, the federal government announced changes to simplify claiming home workspace expenses.  Employees who worked from home for at least four consecutive weeks can claim $2 per day, up to a maximum of $400, without detailed expenses or a signed T2200 form.  For claims above the $400, the usual rules will apply.  For more information, see: Canada Revenue Agency

Outside of the simplified $400 claim, workspace in the home expenses can only be deducted if one of two conditions are met: either (1) the employee must principally perform (i.e. more than 50%) their work from their home work space or (2) the work space at home is used exclusively for work and used “on a regular and continuous basis for meeting customers or other persons” for work.  In Quebec, it is possible to deduct a pro-rated amount for the periods spent working from home due to lockdown.  For the rest of Canada, amounts over $400 may still be subject to the usual requirements mentioned above.

Reimbursement from the employer is the best option due to its dollar-for-dollar value, and expediency.  Published reports indicate that this year the CRA will accept an employer reimbursement of up to $500 for purchases of personal computing equipment and home office furniture to allow employees to work from home during the COVID-19 crisis without that counting as a taxable benefit for the employee.  Employer reimbursed amounts above $500 will be treated as a taxable benefit for the employee.  Note however that while the employer is allowed to reimburse, it is not necessarily required to reimburse (subject to the collective agreement or relevant policies).

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.

Question 18

We are in bargaining or about to enter bargaining. Should we suspend or postpone negotiations?

Although at the start of the pandemic many associations suspended or postponed their negotiations, many have settled since then. Some negotiated a rollover while others negotiated full settlements. We encourage you to communicate with your Collective Bargaining Officer at CAUT to determine the best action plan for your association. They can also help you in the development of protocols for online bargaining. We also suggest registering for CAUT’s new online collective bargaining workshop.

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