As the coronavirus pandemic continues to plague the nation, a growing number of companies are making significant moves to thwart the spread of the virus and adjust to special circumstances. From reduced job hours and work-from-home protocols to total shutdowns and mass layoffs, Canadian workers are deeply impacted by this public health crisis.
The directives from health experts have been clear: stay at home, self-isolate, avoid public gatherings, practice good hand hygiene, and participate in social distancing. In accordance with these guidelines, some people have opted to work from home or take up voluntary paid leave offers. The problem is, not everyone has those luxuries.
Aside from the healthcare professionals, medical staff, sanitation teams, energy and fuel employees, internet providers, and ground-level workers who are employed in essential services, many Canadian workers feel like they do not have a choice and are forced to report to work, despite having legitimate concerns for their health and safety.
In fact, not all employers in Canada are following government recommendations for best practices. They continue to operate, business as usual, with little or no protective measures in place for the coronavirus. This defeats the purpose of self-isolation and social distancing. For such strategies to be truly effective, everyone must take part in them. Calling in workers during an ongoing outbreak only puts lives in danger.
Canadian workers should not feel as though they are not allowed to prioritize their safety, especially during a pandemic. They should not feel like they are being put in harm's way, or that they will be viewed as overdramatic for taking this crisis seriously.
That being said, it is every Canadian worker's right to refuse to come in to work if they have good reason to believe their workplace presents a danger to their health and safety. According to the Canada Labour Code, a danger is "any hazard, condition or activity that could reasonably be expected to be an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected or the activity altered." Amid the current outbreak, workplaces that consist of 50 persons or more should technically be considered dangerous.
If an employee exercises this right, the employer is then obligated to investigate the situation in that employee's presence. If the employer finds there is no danger, the employee will need to have the Labour Ministry open a separate investigation.
The fear for most employees is that they'll not only lose their jobs for exercising this right during this pandemic, but that they'll also not qualify for Employment Insurance (EI) or financial assistance should they decide to opt-out of shifts or stay home for a certain period of time.
In Ontario, the Ford government has rolled out Bill 186, which allows employees to take an emergency leave of absence due to an infectious disease emergency without the need for a medical note. However, employers are only obligated to pay employees they specifically instruct to not come in to work as a precaution—there is no legal obligation for employers to pay employees who decide to take the emergency leave of absence on their own accord.
Employers are not obligated to pay employees who are ill, either. According to CTV News, to recover lost compensation, the only options available to ill employees are paid vacation time, employment insurance, workplace safety insurance, and short-term disability benefits.
Clearly, the legislation falls short in some areas. Though, in these unprecedented times, perhaps taking the financial hit is worth staying healthy. The way the current system is set up, it seems that some Canadians may have to make the tough choice between money and safety.
Naureen Rizvi, Unifor's Ontario Regional Director, had some criticisms regarding the legislation: "Ontarians should not be put in the position of choosing whether to protect their health and that of their friends, family, and co-workers or picking up their next paycheque, and that's what this legislation appears to do."
"The government's COVID-19 plan shouldn't be aimed at protecting the pocketbooks of employers but should help protect our health."
Provincial governments have taken the next step by implementing fines for individuals and businesses that defy social distancing protocols. Perhaps it's time they consider putting more pressure on companies to respect the rights of their workers through stricter legal rules.
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