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The Black Hole

Employment insurance for postdocs needs to be a priority


Today we’re pleased to have a guest post from incoming CAPS/ACSP Chair Joe Sparling on Employment Insurance for early career researchers…

Dr. Joseph S. Sparling is a postdoctoral scholar studying neurodegenerative disease in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary. He is the current president of his local postdoctoral association (PDAC), an outspoken advocate for postdoctoral policy reform, and the incoming (2016-2017) chair of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars / Association Canadienne des Stagiaires Postdoctoraux (CAPS/ACSP).

People who dedicate their life’s work to research do not expect fame and fortune, but neither do they expect to earn a PhD only to be unceremoniously evicted from academia and forced to take a random job to cover living expenses. And yet, the latter is a reasonably common outcome for many postdocs working in Canada today, and it happens far more often than you would imagine.  This is largely due to the lack of basic protections provided to the vast majority of workers in Canada through Employment Insurance (EI).

The policies in place at most Canadian institutions appear to be based on the assumption that postdocs don’t need the protections provided by EI; that having a PhD somehow makes a person immune to unemployment and illness, uninterested in raising a family, and less likely to have critically ill relatives or children. As a result of these policies, postdoctoral researchers are left vulnerable to income loss due to unemployment and are routinely forced to take unpaid leave due to maternity or illness, or no leave whatsoever as the father of a newborn or recently adopted child, the family member of a terminally-ill relative, or the parent of a critically ill child. Worse still is that the actual number of postdocs finding themselves in these unenviable situations each year is entirely unknown, as no Canadian research institution, government body, or funding agency bothers to collect or report this type of unflattering data.

As a member of the executive board of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars / Association Canadienne des Stagiaires Postdoctoraux (CAPS/ACSP), I know these people exist because I’ve spoken to them, especially in the past few months, and particularly regarding the lack of maternity benefits for postdocs working in Canada. As a Canadian, I find the lack of access to EI (or equivalent protections) for postdocs unacceptable and I am ashamed of our system – especially when I hear stories of expectant mothers being forced to take unpaid maternity leave. Striving to attain EI benefits for all postdocs will be one of CAPS/ACSP’s primary advocacy targets in 2016-2017, and while this will not be an easy issue to solve, I have little doubt that it can be achieved if we work together. The first step towards solving this problem is gathering as much information as possible about its prevalence and impact, and so I ask that all postdocs who have faced difficulties related to the lack of EI coverage share their stories with me and the CAPS/ACSP executive. We’ll use that information as evidence of the need for policy reform, but you will remain anonymous unless you explicitly give us permission to share your story publicly.

Improvements in policy will take considerable time and effort, and in the meantime, the CAPS/ACSP executive board will continue to do everything we can to support postdocs seeking improved benefits and protections at the individual or institutional levels by providing information and resources. A prime example of this is a recent post, in which we drew attention to a little-known process by which any worker in Canada can seek access to EI by requesting an employment status ruling from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). While this option is available to any postdoc, it must be noted that the success of any ruling request depends on a number of factors, including the source of funding for the individual’s work and a variety of specific criteria used to determine whether an employer-employee relationship exists between the postdoc and their institution. Intriguingly, this approach is also available to postdocs who have already lost their position (regardless of why), even if the position ended in the previous calendar year, in which case the request must be submitted to the CRA by June 30th of the current year (i.e., next Thursday for positions that ended in 2015). For more details regarding this process, please read the full post, “CRA Employment Status Rulings: Important information for all postdocs working in Canada”, which can be found on the CAPS/ACSP Facebook page or accessed directly from our Google Drive, and be sure to follow the links provided in that article to get all the details from the CRA website if you are considering acting on any of the information provided.

CRA ruling requests are by no means an ideal solution to the problem of the lack of EI coverage for postdocs. They are however, an option that most postdocs are unaware of and an approach that may prove useful for some postdocs in need of access to EI benefits. In the coming months CAPS/ACSP will be unveiling additional advocacy initiatives aimed at lobbying the federal and provincial governments for major reforms in postdoctoral policy. I urge you to support these initiatives in any way that you can, as they represent our best chance to bring about meaningful and long-lasting improvements in postdoctoral working conditions in Canada.

PS: For those of you who do not know… CAPS/ACSP is a national organization representing the interests of all postdocs working in Canada as well as Canadian postdocs working abroad. The organization is run by an executive board comprised of elected volunteers who dedicate their time to: 1) help build and maintain a strong postdoctoral community across Canada, 2) work to empower postdocs by sharing information and resources, and 3) advocate for improvements in postdoctoral policy at the federal, provincial, and institutional levels.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Stewart Rood / June 28, 2016 at 09:19

    This relates to the broader question of whether post-doctoral fellows (PDFs) should be treated as students or staff. They are intermediate, and our university (Lethbridge) has PDF policies that are changing over time. Some options exist and my view is that the university should assist each PDF in optimizing their appointment, relative to their situation. There are costs associated with additional benefits and there would be some balancing between the salary scale and the benefits, which need to be supported from the limited funding that’s available.

  2. Brett / June 30, 2016 at 14:19

    A related matter is the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP)– another social service post-docs do not pay into, and therefore will not enjoy as much of, in retirement. Yes, there is a clause that “forgets” up to a “few” of your leanest contributory years, but what if you are a post-doc for 5+ years? Will all of these years be forgotten? I think there is a good chance many post-doc’s CPP payouts will be less than their peers in retirement, which is yet another unfortunate side-effect of being neither an employee, nor a student.

  3. Kristen / July 6, 2016 at 13:50

    Wow, I’m actually kind of shocked to hear there are still universities trying to cheat the system and pretend Post-Docs aren’t employees. Someone I was acquainted dealt with this years ago when she went to claim EI and was told she hadn’t been employed… CRA ruled that the university should have been contributing to EI. I’ve taken maternity leave from my post-doc position and had the maternity/parent leave benefits from EI without any problems, the university contributes to EI and CPP like they would for any employee.

    It isn’t difficult, we’re not students by any definition that they use and scholarship money for PDFs is now taxed related to the fact that we aren’t students.

  4. hard postdoc / December 12, 2017 at 21:16

    Quebec still treated postdoc as trainees, not employees. They only gave T4A to postdocs instead of the regular T4. You would have to take unpaid maternity leave if you want to have a kid, because the universities did not pay EI for you. Besides, if you decided to have a kid (as part of normal family life), you would also risk losing your contract as your job is not an employment. What a hard life for postdocs!

    Postdocs in other provinces might have better protection. So far as I know some universities in BC pay EI for postdocs. However, if you were outstanding or lucky enough to receive external funding (such as NSERC PDF), that part of the funding was not insurable either. NSERC will only issue you T4A for the glorious and highly competitive grant that you received from NSERC. Sadly, NSERC is not your employer, hence nobody will issue you a Record of Employment for those good amount of money. In the case that those fundings from government agencies were your only source of income as postdoc, the moment you decided to take maternity leave, you would find yourself in a desperate situation that you previously had no insurable income, so the government would not pay you a penny maternity leave benefits.

    Postdocs spent 4-5 hard working years to obtain their PhD degrees, with low income (e.g. a typical NSERC scholarship was only 20k per year). Then they had to work even harder to secure their postdoc contract (if they were lucky enough to find one, as there are many out there who could not find one and remain unemployed). They were paid low wages (especially in Quebec, where a typical postdoc wage was 40~50k per year). They worked around the clock to keep publishing papers and writing grant applications for their supervisors. Yet, sadly, our existing EI system does not care about them and treats them like trash. They have fulfilled their duty as a citizen (or residents) of Canada to work hard, yet the system did not reward them for their hard work, nor help them to take care of their family. I have seen many postdocs (or “Research Associates”) who were 40 ~ 50 years old, yet still had to renew their contract on a yearly or even 6-month base, and did not know where they would be next year if the contract could not be renewed. How could they have normal life in this case? What a crap.

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