Many people working remotely due to COVID-19 have reported improved work-life balance and increased productivity. However, with these changes come new expectations regarding employment policies and workers’ rights for anyone telecommuting.

U of T employees who are working online right now should be aware of what to expect and what is expected of them. Accordingly, the university’s Division of Human Resources & Equity has assembled a collection of resources and guidelines that govern the new reality of employment at a distance.

Suitable workspace and equipment

The university expects its remote workers to provide their own suitable workspace — typically within their residence — and provide this information to their managers. Additionally, this workspace is mandated to be for private use only. Any meeting with visitors or shipments must be done using special arrangements at alternate locations. 

Equipment and supply needs are also to be fulfilled by employees. This includes, but is not limited to, hardware, software, and connectivity to a network. However, if the university does provide any equipment and supplies, this will be noted in working agreements and employees are expected to maintain and return said equipment upon the end of remote working.

Maintained communication

Being readily available through an agreed upon communication method — such as email or instant messaging — is strictly mandated by the university. Remote workers must communicate any telecommuting arrangements to their current managers, who can approve them as well as any changes to workplace shifts. Any other changes to this agreement and other requests must be communicated in writing.

Workers must be available during the agreed upon work hours and are expected to prioritize their work during these hours, with reasonable consideration for caregiving obligations exacerbated by the pandemic. In the event of disruptions or internet connectivity issues, employees must make every effort to inform their managers and minimize the impact to their work.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Remote workers are expected to perform their job duties in a similar timeframe to their pre-pandemic hours. Barring any changes, they must follow departmental procedures and request sick days and vacation time as usual. Any other ordinary personal responsibilities arising from work hours are also to be communicated according to normal processes.

Employees dealing with confidential documents must also maintain the same level of privacy when working at home. This includes, but is not limited to, protecting the documents “from being damaged, destroyed, stolen, copied or otherwise accessed by unauthorized individuals.” During remote work, document disposal will still occur on campus. As before, any breaches of privacy must be communicated immediately to managers.

New responsibilities, new rights

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902 (CUPE 3902) is the bargaining unit that represents contract academic workers — such as sessional lecturers and teaching assistants — at U of T.

“It does not appear [that U of T is] making or forcing anyone to install anything,” said Amy Conwell, the chair of CUPE 3902, in an interview with The Varsity. However, she added that choosing not to install certain recommended software may impact work performance.

Under the Canadian Labour Code, all workers in Canada have the right to refuse dangerous work. Conwell noted that employees must have a legitimate reason to avoid potentially unsafe work, similar to the procedure for teaching in person. However, this would need to be a more urgent reason than just the existence of the pandemic, such as caring for an elderly family member or having an underlying health condition.

Despite a clear delineation of workers’ responsibilities, a lack of specificity around workers’ rights — such as what constitutes an ‘urgent reason’ — is cause for concern for Conwell.

“We have been asking the university to provide guidelines and policies… communicated to all workers and students about their rights,” said Conwell. “Specifically, we’ve asked them for weeks now the same question about accommodations and how they were going to systematically, across the board allow people to access accommodations and they haven’t responded sufficiently to that as well.”