What Canadian Employers Should Know During the Pandemic

By Catherine Skrzypinski May 5, 2020
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Canadian Parliament Building

Canadian employers are confronted by tremendous challenges in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic. During the public health emergency, keeping people from gathering at workplaces has been a necessary part of social distancing, leading to a rise in remote work. On top of that, many businesses and individuals are facing financial and other uncertainties.

"Anxiety may be high among employers and employees alike," said Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver, British Columbia. "The true sign of a company's character is how it treats employees when times are tough."

Work-from-Home Obligations

According to Statistics Canada, approximately 40 percent of Canada's overall labor force has been working from home since mid-March 2020. Given the sudden increase in remote work, employers should consider how to ensure safe working conditions, said Hilary Page, an attorney at SpringLaw in Toronto.

Andrew Shaw, a lawyer with Baker McKenzie in Toronto, outlined a work-from-home plan for employers:

  • Decide whether working from home is the best option for employees and figure out nonintrusive ways to assess their productivity.
  • Draft policies for the use of technology to comply with employment standards regarding hours worked and overtime. He suggested overtime should be preapproved.
  • Prepare for human rights issues, taking into consideration that workers may need to care for children and elders.
  • Consider occupational health and safety issues, such as reporting a COVID-19 diagnosis to the public health authority in a province.

New Protections and Benefits

Many Canadian employees are dealing with reduced hours or having their hours cut completely. Statistics Canada reported that 1 million Canadians lost their jobs in March 2020.

Canadian provinces, including Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, and Saskatchewan, as well as the federal government, have all rolled out new job-protected leaves in response to COVID-19.

"A job-protection leave is like parental leave in Canada," Page noted. "The employers won't have to pay the employee, but it also means employers can't terminate an employee."

Employees who cannot work because of COVID-19 are eligible for financial benefits such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB): Canadian residents facing unemployment due to the global pandemic can tap into the CERB for temporary income support.

Launched on April 6, the CERB program provides eligible workers—including employees, contract workers and the self-employed—with $500 Canadian dollars per week for up to 16 weeks. The benefit is available from March 15 to Oct. 3.

"We will do whatever it takes to protect the health and safety of Canadians, while making sure that our workers and businesses are supported," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on April 15.

The Canadian government has also offered employment insurance benefits to eligible workers—now including employees who are quarantined or sick due to COVID-19—who have experienced a decrease in regular weekly earnings of more than 40 percent. Eligible employees may receive a maximum amount of $573 Canadian dollars (approximately US $408) per week for up to 15 weeks.

"Employees are no longer required to provide a medical note to receive these benefits," Page said. "Anyone who asserts their right to take this leave can take it, no questions asked." 

Pau noted that Canadians cannot receive both employment insurance benefits and the CERB for the same period.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Income Relief Options for Employers

Many Canadian employers are dealing with the impact of the coronavirus on their businesses.

"Now that we're in the midst of a global pandemic, employers are facing some hard realities: either their company might go bankrupt or they might have to lay people off," said Lisa Stam, founder of SpringLaw in Toronto.

To reduce costs, employers might, among other options, choose work sharing or temporary layoffs.

Work sharing. A work-sharing program helps employers avoid layoffs and reduce their workforces when business activity is beyond their control, such as during a pandemic. Work sharing provides employment insurance benefits to eligible employees who agree to reduce their normal work hours and share the available work while their employer recovers.

The work-sharing program is a three-party agreement among the employer, the employee and the federal government, Shaw said. Employees must agree to reduced hours of work by at least 10 percent—the equivalent of half a day—and up to 60 percent, or three days, per week.

The Canadian government has extended the agreement for all industries from 38 weeks to 76 weeks, effective March 15. Eligible Canadian companies must have been in business for one year and must submit a recovery plan, Page stated.

Temporary layoffs. With temporary layoffs, employers notify their employees in writing that they are temporarily stopping work and compensation but that they intend to recall the workers when business picks up.

In Ontario and British Columbia, the maximum length of a temporary layoff is 13 weeks in any period of 20 consecutive weeks. If the layoff exceeds the maximum length, the employee is terminated.

Experts say there is some risk that a temporary layoff could trigger a claim of constructive dismissal. Such a claim can occur when an employee resigns because the employer has created a hostile work environment, Stam explained. Since the resignation is not truly voluntary in such circumstances, it is a termination.

"Temporary layoffs are not always a breach of contract," Shaw added. "If employers have to resort to temporary layoffs, they should do it the right way."

Shaw also advised employers to check in with their employees during a temporary layoff.

Other Communication Considerations

Experts admit that they are still adapting to the rapidly changing employment landscape in Canada during the pandemic, but they emphasize that clear, constant communication between employers and employees is key to facing the challenges being presented.

"This is an opportunity for employers to show leadership strength by taking this situation seriously and demonstrating to employees, in actions and in words, that they—and their well-being—are a top priority," Pau concluded. 

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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