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What Are My Employment Rights During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Even though we had advanced warnings of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, public health organizations, schools and employers had to wait to see how it played out before implementing procedures that protected people’s safety and complied with the law.

In many cases, this left employers scrambling to react to lockdowns and other public safety measures. Even though we are currently in a reopening phase in Ontario, many employees are still unsure about their rights in the COVID-19 era.

When it comes to your employment rights as they relate to the pandemic, here’s what you need to know.

The Right to Counsel

It is within your rights to work with a professional who can thoroughly outline your employment rights and options as it relates to the employment implications of COVID-19. For efficient, transparent legal employment advice, you can contact the employment lawyers at Ertl Lawyers for a free, no-obligation consultation about your specific situation. No two cases are the same, and the rules around COVID-19 change with the circumstances, which is why it’s always helpful to consult a professional

The Right to a Safe Workplace

Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act requires all employers to take reasonable measures to eliminate workplace hazards and provide a safe working environment. In the age of COVID-19, this could mean training, implementing social distancing and equipment cleaning rules or providing masks and other PPE. As an employee, you also have the right to:

  • Know about health and safety issues.
  • Participate in decisions that could affect your health and safety.
  • Refuse work that could jeopardize your health and safety or that of others.

If you see a potential hazard, speak to your health and safety rep or employer about it first. If you’re not satisfied, or feel that your employer is not following public health mandates, consult your health and safety rep or an employment lawyer before taking any decisive actions like refusing certain duties at work or not coming in at all.

Refusing to perform parts of your job can be classified as insubordination and not coming to work can be seen as job abandonment – both of which could result in a termination for cause. If terminated for cause, you’re not entitled to notice or severance pay, and you will not be eligible for Employment Insurance (EI) benefits.

Rights Against COVID-19 Related Discrimination in the Workplace

The Ontario Human Rights Code requires employers to treat workers fairly and not discriminate or allow stereotyping or harassment based on race, creed, disability, family status or any other protected ground.

That means that, if, for example, your workplace requires mask-wearing and you have a medically documented reason for not wearing one, your employer must try to accommodate up to the point of undue hardship on them.

Temporary Layoffs and Employee Rights

The Government of Ontario implemented the Infectious Disease Emergency Leave (IDEL) regulation to protect employers forced to lay employees off temporarily due to COVID-19. It is due to expire on December 31, 2021, meaning the usual rules and regulations will be in effect on January 1, 2022.  Note that the IDEL has already been extended on several occasions and may be extended again.

It allows employers to place non-unionized employees on job-protected, unpaid leave or drastically reduce their hours and prevents employees from claiming constructive dismissal and seeking compensation under the Employment Standards Act, 2000.

Normally, a temporary layoff can be considered a termination unless it’s allowed in the employment contract, it’s widely known and exercised in the industry, or the employee has been laid off before or consents to the layoff.

However, like every other industry, the legal system is reacting to events related to the pandemic as they unfold. Rules around layoffs and an employee’s rights are up for debate. Speak to an employment lawyer before accepting or refusing a layoff as these decisions affect your rights and compensation you may be entitled to.

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