Over the summer we have been meeting with representatives of the Pandemic Response Team (PRT), carrying on discussions with the employer about the COVID-19 response, and insisting on efforts to resolve matters affecting USFA members. We have raised a number of concerns in these discussions including the need for clarity on copyright of recorded lectures, the difficulty faculty have been experiencing with getting reimbursement for purchases of equipment to work remotely, the potential impact of poor evaluations of remote teaching, the cancellation of phone contracts, and the lack of communication and consultation on decisions affecting faculty. Following is a summary of responses from the employer.
Communication and consultation
The employer acknowledges improved communication is required and has committed to more intentional consulting and soliciting feedback.
We have taken the position with the employer that the university’s approach to managing the COVID-19 response should no longer be through a top-down process that excludes our members from decision making. We recognize the university must consult with the government and SK Health Authority, among other groups. Although as we understand it, the Pandemic Recovery and Response Team (PRT) consults with Council Chairs before making recommendations to the President’s Executive Committee (PEC), we are concerned that academic decisions are being made without the active participation of University Council members on the question of what the hybrid delivery of programs might look like in term 2. A sub-committee of University Council must be involved in any decision regarding course delivery for term 2. Not only is there frustration amongst faculty regarding the lack of consultation before decisions directly affecting their work are made, but the University Act gives Council the authority to oversee and direct the university’s academic affairs. COVID-19 should not be a reason for circumventing that authority. We are confident that members of Council will see the wisdom and necessity of having qualified people and broad representation on any such sub-committee.
The employer has now confirmed it has a shared understanding with USFA of the language in the Agreement on copyright, that is, that faculty own copyright to all materials they create for teaching, including recorded lectures and other recorded materials.
We have notified the Employer that DEU must cease making contracts with individual employees for online course development, as USFA is the exclusive bargaining agent for USFA members. Please let us know if you are asked to sign such a contract.
The Letter of Understanding signed in April specified that for renewal of probation, tenure, and promotions decisions, student and peer feedback on teaching in the Winter or Spring and Summer terms shall be included in case files for consideration only at the request of the candidate.
The employer is unwilling to pursue an extension to this period, suggesting instead that we work on recommendations for employees to put memos in case files explaining COVID-19 related setbacks they have encountered. The employer has made a commitment to encourage collegial committees to make COVID-19 a factor in their decisions.
Mobile phones and data plans
Some researchers were surprised to learn that university administrators had not accounted for faculty using mobile phones and data plans solely for research projects when they announced changes to the mobile device program whereby employees are to be transitioned off their university managed contracts. The employer acknowledged that communication regarding changes to the mobile phone program was lacking, and that some research scenarios had not been considered. The employer intends to provide a form to aid in addressing research-related inquiries in the next week, and will provide additional research information. To ensure smooth processing and minimize expense questioning, the employer recommends faculty include documentation with expense or PCard claims to confirm the mobile phones and/or associated cellular/data plans are required for an approved research program. In response to our discussions, the employer has established a research mobility committee that will address research-specific mobile device inquiries. To submit a request for information or assistance from the mobile phone research team, faculty are advised to visit the general request form and select “yes” when asked if this is a research inquiry.
Related to this issue is the announcement that makes a change to the purpose of the APEF without warning, a change that we maintain should be negotiated. The decision that employees may use APEFs as stipend funding for mobile phones means that the APEF in this case is considered a taxable benefit. The Canada Revenue Agency, however, explicitly allows for circumstances where mobile devices and Internet services are not taxable benefits. The university APEF Policy stipulates that APEFs are used for expenditures incurred in the performance of professional, teaching or research activities at the university and that “any personal benefit must be incidental.” We will continue to seek an explanation of why the university has decided to treat the purchase of mobile devices, now with a few exceptions, as a taxable benefit. More information on the university’s “Bring Your Own Phone” program is available here. CRA information is available here and here.
Equipment purchases and reimbursement for working remotely
While faculty have expressed to USFA a number of concerns associated with working from home, perhaps the most frequently voiced frustration is not being able to purchase and use the tools they need to do their work.
There is currently no line between the personal and professional workspace. There was no discussion or consultation with employees before decisions about expense reimbursements were made, and they seem to have been made with little thought about what the impact is on employees. We suggested in our meetings with the employer that denying faculty the right to purchase equipment or software using their own APEFs or research funds has come across at times as disrespectful, and it is not conducive to getting work done efficiently and effectively—especially when faculty work has changed so dramatically. Most are using their own homes and personal equipment for teaching, research, and administration without compensation from the university, and we asked the employer to consider that the time for claiming a division between the personal and the professional is not now.
The employer has implemented some changes as a result of this dialogue, reminding ICT and Connection Point staff that their role is not to question why an individual requires a specific piece of equipment, but rather to assist in processing reimbursements or purchases of eligible items. However, guidelines for determining eligibility have not been changed to reflect the current work from home environment. (You have the ability to submit a Declaration of Property Used Off Campus form explicitly certifying that the equipment will be to carry out professional teaching and/or research activities, any personal use is incidental, and any personal benefit for income tax purposes will be a matter between the employee and CRA.)
We have raised on several occasions the confused and contradictory messaging from the employer with regard to purchases of work equipment as a “taxable benefit.” We need clarity on why using equipment for work at home when we have not been able to work on campus would be considered a “personal benefit.” The employer is investigating the tax implications of reimbursing for home office expenses. Specifically, it is investigating the potential to allow for home office expense reimbursements to include items that were previously denied due to what is determined to be a lack of usability on campus and/or not meeting USask standards, and the implications regarding the taxable benefit component of those items. We are told that it may be possible to implement temporary improvements/changes to guidelines to better support the work from home environment. If that happens, you will be able to resubmit requests for which reimbursement or PCard authorization has been denied. In addition, Canada Revenue Agency is expected to advise soon if it will allow employer reimbursements for home office expenses up to $500 to be non-taxable to support working remotely because of the pandemic. The T2200 process will be available for individuals to seek tax relief for certain expenses incurred while currently working from home. Information on the T2200 process can be found in the Knowledge Base article What is the T2200 form used for?.
To enhance and speed up all IT related reimbursement requests, a computing hardware approval list has been developed that empowers ConnectionPoint to approve the majority of all printers, monitors and accessories without having to consult with ICT. We have requested a copy of the list and will share it with you once we have it.
The guidelines for computer purchases have also not been altered for the remote working environment. The employer tells us this is because there are minimum requirements that must be followed to ensure purchased equipment is functional within the U of S computing infrastructure and can be securely and properly supported and maintained by ICT Support Staff.
WebEx and Microsoft Teams are the University’s preferred applications for web conferencing as both have been subjected to vigorous security, privacy and University compatibility standards via the ICT Technology Assessment team and privacy office. However, an exception process has been developed to support employees who require Zoom licenses to communicate with community and research partners. You can seek approval to use Zoom by submitting a Web/Video-conferencing Software Exception Request.
USFA discussions with employer representatives continue and we will continue to share what we learn.
If you have questions about the content of this e-Letter, or other questions or concerns, simply let us know in a reply and someone will contact you.