Special Report

Updated: How Canadian companies are responding to COVID-19

This illustration, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020, shows COVID-19. The Canadian Press/CDC via AP, File
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This story was updated March 13 to include new information from Air Transat, Via Rail, Miovision, Borrowell, University of Toronto, McGill University, York University, Concordia University, Western University and Cineplex, which is reducing seating capacity in all theatres by half to allow for social distancing. 

Canada’s biggest tech companies and financial institutions have significantly restricted business travel as they closely monitor the impact of COVID-19 on markets and their employees. 

The Logic surveyed 38 companies, including banks, investment funds and post-secondary institutions to find out what measures they have put in place for their employees in response to the disease. Also included in this list are some other companies that have already publicly disclosed their COVID-19 policies. By sharing information about how companies are approaching COVID-19 in the workplace, we hope others can learn and consider their own policies.

Talking Point

Around 62 per cent of the companies listed have restricted travel due to COVID-19. Six have asked people to work from home. Worldwide, over 300 business conferences (and counting) have been cancelled, delayed or moved online.

Of those listed below, 19 have restricted or limited business travel, while six have asked their employees to work from home. Over 300 business conferences (and counting) have been cancelled, delayed or moved online, including Collision, one of North America’s biggest tech events, set to take place in Toronto in June, as well as Shopify’s and OpenText’s events. 

On March 10, Communitech cancelled its True North Festival, planned for June, and C100 postponed its March 23 Canadians in Tech event.

Seventeen of the 38 surveyed either declined to comment, citing internal policies, or didn’t respond by publication time. 

If you’d like your company included on this list, please email us at [email protected]. Your identity will be kept anonymous. 

This list will be updated as policies are revised and additional responses are received.

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Companies

Air Canada: The country’s largest airline has suspended all flights to and from Italy, along with China. It is also providing a flexible rebooking policy.

Air Transat: In addition to precise cleaning protocols, the Montreal airline said passengers can amend existing bookings made before March 4 for travel by April 30 at no charge, and has waived change fees on existing cruise package bookings. New bookings are now under a flexibility policy. The airline has stopped hiring and suspended routes as it asks for government help to survive a 50-per-cent plunge in sales. It is also looking for relief on airport fees, taxes and aircraft lease payments.

BlackBerry: The company has “placed a hold” on all non-essential travel, including events and conferences, and has put a business continuity plan in place. 

Breather: The co-working space provider has strengthened its cleaning process “paying special attention to frequently touched surfaces including tables, faucets, and doorknobs.” Breather is working with “a few companies to ensure their employees have access to private workspaces available.” It is also ensuring there are no supply-chain disruptions, “as we custom manufacture our furniture in Asia.”

Ciena: On March 11, the Ottawa-based telecommunications company asked its 1,500 employees at its Kanata office to work from home until March 17, after one of its members was tested positive for the disease. 

Cineplex: The cinema giant has introduced “enhanced cleaning protocols” and is asking movie-goers who feel unwell to stay home. In an email to customers, Cineplex said it is ensuring hourly staff are “protected and are not penalized financially if they need to stay at home.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cineplex will reduce seating in 1693 auditoriums nationwide by 50 per cent to allow for social distancing.

Element AI: The Montreal-based company said, “At this time, Element AI will not address specifics externally,” but said it is monitoring the situation closely and is “implementing best practices.”

Galvanize: The Vancouver software company has an emergency response team, of which members participate in “simulated business continuity and disaster recovery scenarios” on an annual basis.

General Motors of Canada: The automaker is “monitoring the situation closely,” has created a contingency plan for its supply chain and engineering teams; it said its North American production hasn’t been impacted. 

Home Depot: All employee travel to and from Asia and Italy is on hold until further notice, and anyone who has returned from those regions within the last two weeks are being told to stay home for 14 days before returning to work, according to The Canadian Press.

Miovision: As of March 16, the Waterloo-based urbantech company is asking all employees to work from home. It is also “pausing” all travel, cancelling office events and extending sick leave for employees.

OpenText: All international business travel except within North America for OpenText employees has been stopped. The company has also cancelled participation in external events until March 31, and has moved its flagship Enterprise World Europe event on April 8 to being digital only. Employees in mainland China, Hong Kong and Italy are currently working from home.

Porter Airlines: As well as following guidelines from public health agencies, the airline said it is implementing additional cleaning measures and adding sterilization kits for crew and passengers who may show symptoms. It also has instituted a flexible change policy on all fares. Porter is waiving flight change and cancellation fees for bookings made before March 31, 2020, for travel within the next 12 months.

Rogers: The company did not share specifics on its policy, saying instead that it was “taking all necessary steps to protect our team” and that it was “prepared in the case that additional protection measures become necessary in Canada.”

Shopify: The Ottawa-based e-commerce company announced on February 28 it had cancelled its annual conference, planned to take place in Toronto in May. It has also postponed all events, one-on-one appointments and workshops at its Los Angeles entrepreneurs’ space. Shopify did not respond to The Logic’s inquiry. Starting March 16, all employees will be working from home. The company is offering $1,000 to each employee to help set up their home offices.

Telus: Approximately 80 per cent of Telus’s employees “take advantage of our remote work capabilities,” a spokesperson said, which it said it will “continue to leverage.” “A working group of senior management representatives from across the business is meeting regularly to assess the latest developments, coordinate planning, and ensure the safety of our team members.” 

Traction on Demand: The Burnaby, B.C.-based technology company with over 700 employees according to LinkedIn, has issued “a company-wide work remote plan to reduce risks in the company’s global offices,” according to a spokesperson.

Wattpad: The company has stopped business travel to China, Japan, Italy, Iran and South Korea. “There is also documentation being created which will highlight our plan of action in the event a confirmed case with a Wattpad employee is identified,” said a February 27 internal email shared with The Logic

WestJet Airlines: The Calgary-based airline is offering employees a voluntary buyout package as it imposes a company-wide hiring freeze to “protect [its] financial well-being.” It’s also freezing discretionary spending as a cost-cutting measure.

Via Rail: Masks are being distributed to all major stations in case they are needed. Passengers can cancel or modify their reservation during the month of March and April and receive a full refund.

Financial and professional services

BMO: The bank told Bloomberg it is splitting its trading operations in Canada, Asia, London and the U.S. “as part of our ongoing testing of our [business continuity plan] capabilities.” BMO did not respond to The Logic’s inquiry.

Borrowell: The fintech company has moved all its operations to remote work.

Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec: The Quebec institutional investor has cancelled business travel to the most impacted regions, with special measures in place for employees in its Shanghai and Singapore offices. On March 10, the fund told employees not to travel to California and Washington state, per Pensions & Investments. “We have a business continuity plan that involves using secondary sites, the adoption of rotating schedules and measures to facilitate teleworking for the entire organization,” a spokesperson told The Logic.

CIBC: The bank is monitoring events closely, and is requiring senior management approval for all non-essential travel by air. CIBC is moving some of its trading-floor teams in Toronto and New York to backup locations, a spokesperson told The Globe and Mail.

Ernst & Young: The accounting giant told the Financial Post it has placed limits on all non-essential travel. 

Manulife Financial: All non-essential travel to and from mainland China has been suspended, Manulife told The Canadian Press. The insurance company is also encouraging employees to “work from home” and ensuring “more frequent office cleaning.”

National Bank: “A corporate cell comprised of Bank executives and our Business continuity team has been put in place early in the year to monitor the situation,” a spokesperson said, adding that business travel has been restricted, pending approval from senior management. “The cell is ready to intervene should the evolution of the situation require it.”

Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan: In addition to sharing updates from international and local health authorities, the pension fund has asked its employees “to refrain from non-essential international business travel for at least the next two weeks.”

Portag3 Ventures: Sagard Holdings, the venture fund’s parent company, has cancelled all internal transcontinental business travel and has restricted employees from attending large conferences until further notice. Each of the fund’s portfolio companies has been advised to create their own policies; those with a Portag3 member on their board have to present a plan at the next meeting. Events and conferences in the spring and summer are being re-evaluated. 

Radical Ventures: “At Radical we’re looking to Health Canada and CDC for guidance on public health measures, but we’re also tracking the disease closely.” 

RBC: RBC’s employees tested positive for COVID-19 on March 9 and has been put in self-isolation; an undisclosed number of employees who worked on the same floor have also been asked to self-quarantine. RBC employees have been advised “to defer non-essential travel to Hong Kong, mainland China and other specific areas affected by COVID-19,” a spokesperson told The Logic, as it monitors developments. The bank is also splitting its global trading teams in Toronto, New York, New Jersey and London as “a precautionary measure,” according to The Globe.

Scotiabank: A “small number of employees” of the bank’s capital markets teams in Canada and the U.S. started working at secondary sites on March 9, according to Bloomberg. Employees in Asia-Pacific and Europe have been working in split sites for several weeks. A Scotiabank spokesperson told The Logic,We cannot comment on internal policies.”

TD Bank: The bank has restricted travel to severely impacted areas, and is assessing its business continuity plan, per The Globe. TD said it will likely separate groups of employees, like sales and trading staff. The bank did not respond to The Logic’s inquiry.

Top Hat: Along with similar precautions as other companies, the Toronto-based edtech company is asking office visitors key risk-factor questions before deciding whether to meet them in-person or online, and is allowing employees who work from home to expense their lunches. It has also made its e-learning platform free for any professors “who have current, active classes, and need support transitioning their classes online in order to complete the semester.”

Academic institutions, incubators

Carleton University: The Ottawa campus is preparing to move classes online and has created a contingency plan for final exams. President Benoit-Antoine Bacon told students the “semester is not at risk, but we may have to move to online instruction for the remainder of the term. This could happen as quickly as next week.”

Concordia: Classes have been cancelled till the end of March, while courses with over 250 students will be moved online.

Communitech: The Kitchener, Ont.-based tech hub is encouraging staff, tenants and visitors to work remotely if feeling unwell and is suspending travel to areas with health notices. As of March 12, all in-person events and activities have been suspended. On March 19, all Communitech employees will work from home as a “test-drive.” 

DMZ: The Ryerson University-based tech incubator has created a “fully-accessible digital program for times like these,” which includes moving internal events online and not opening its space to community events pending health advisories. If a DMZ member is impacted, the incubator will shut its space down entirely. It has also published a COVID-19 planning guide for startups.

Laurentian University: The Sudbury, Ont. campus is the first Canadian post-secondary institution to shut down indefinitely, shifting all classes online starting March 12.

MaRS: The Toronto-based technology accelerator has increased the number of its cleaning staff and security staff, in case of absences. Business travel to affected countries has been restricted per Canada’s travel notices. Events will continue to be hosted, to be reassessed as needed. “Anyone with a mild cough or low-grade fever is advised to take a sick day or work from home,” a spokesperson said.

McGill University: Students from China, South Korea and Northern Italy have been called back, according to The Globe. The university is also looking for ways to administer exams remotely, if necessary.

McMaster University: All classes and events have been cancelled.

MILA: The Montreal research institute has banned travel for business “to some countries” without supervisor approval “until further notice.” It is not yet changing its plans to host any events in its space.

University of British Columbia: The administration is considering means to offer exams online, per The Globe.

University of Toronto: All undergraduate and research-stream masters and doctoral courses have been cancelled effective March 16, although the university and all three campuses will remain open. This decision to cancel classes is effective until April 3, and will be shifted online in the interim.

University of Waterloo: The academic institution, home to Velocity Labs, has restricted all university-business travel to China and Iran, while increasing screening protocols at the campus health care centre and asking those impacted to self-isolate for 14 days. The university remains in contact with students and faculty members part of its co-op placements.  

Western University: All university-approved student-travel to China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong has been cancelled. All classes have been moved online as of March 12.

York University: All classes are suspended and will be moved online starting March 16. Non-essential events have been cancelled or postponed.

Other: 

Canadian Chamber of Commerce: The non-profit business organization has created a pandemic preparedness guide, as well as plans for crisis communication and recovery, offering checklists to guide members through all levels of the pandemic.

Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council & Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council: The three federal granting agencies are advising Canadian researchers that they will reimburse non-refundable travel fees from agency funds as a result of coronavirus-related trip cancellations.

With files from Murad Hemmadi in Ottawa, Martin Patriquin in Montreal, Catherine McIntyre and Zane Schwartz