Coronavirus puts the spotlight on workers’ rights in Ontario

Big companies are revising work-from-home policies and promising to compensate employees, but the global pandemic puts some workers in a precarious spot


As confirmed cases of COVID-19 rise, workplaces around the world are encouraging employees to self-isolate. However, taking time off is simply not an option for some workers in the age of the gig economy.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially labelled the outbreak a global pandemic. That same morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1-billion response fund to assist health care providers and workers forced to self-isolate. As of press time, Canada has 102 confirmed cases, including 42 in Ontario.

Trudeau’s aid package, which includes funding for medical supplies, public education and testing, waives the one-week waiting period to apply for employment insurance and Service Canada’s work-share program will be modified for companies with employees working from home.

It’s certainly a step in the right direction given several major Canadian companies announced precautions in recent weeks. Google, Shopify, Manulife, Royal Bank of Canada and HSCBC Canada have implemented work-from-home policies, while Ernst & Young, Scotiabank and Home Depot have placed travel restrictions on employees.

Gig economy companies like Uber and Lyft have announced funds to compensate drivers.

Consequently, the pandemic put labour law reforms into the spotlight.

“COVID-19 is exposing the inadequacies of our labour laws on so many levels, from giving workers the ability to take sick days or providing access to income security programs that could actually respond to a situation like today’s,” says Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre. “The fact is workers who are unionized have more of an ability to negotiate working from home options and general flexibility. It’s all connected to collective agreements, not actual legislation.”

Flexible work arrangements are key for those who are low-income, live with a disability, have children and are caretakers.

In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act guarantees up to 10 job-protected unpaid emergency leave days (three for yourself, three for family responsibility and two for bereavement) – a “terrible piecemeal legislation,” as Ladd puts it. It means many risk their jobs simply by taking care of an unwell family member for another day or will often come in to work sick because they cannot afford to lose a day of pay.

According to a 2019 survey by global staffing firm Accountemps, 89 per cent of Canadians go to work sick and 33 per cent of those people say they do not want to or cannot use a sick day.

Canada is only one of three countries in the world, along with the U.S. and Japan, that does not have a national paid sick day policy, despite the fact that such policies are known to reduce employee turnover, improve productivity and result in workers using less sick days, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Working from home, too, results in greater productivity, is more affordable and encourages a healthier lifestyle, in line with a two-year Stanford study. When we also take into consideration the fact that, according to a 2019 survey by gig economy platform Airtasker, one in four employees has quit their job because of a lengthy commute, offering work-from-home options seems like a no-brainer.

There’s a downside, too – employees won’t necessarily have access to office databases or the appropriate software, staff cohesion and collaboration will take a dip, as will any sense of a work-life balance. But it’s important to accommodate employees and whatever they might be living with.

The spotlight COVID-19 has put on employment policies certainly feels prescient as, just one year ago, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government cut emergency medical leave from 10 to eight days, with no paid sick days – legislation triumphantly enacted the previous year by the Liberals. The new legislation also reinstated the right for employers to demand sick notes.

On Thursday, March 12, Ontario advocacy group Decent Work & Health Network held a press conference to call for the reinstatement of 10 days of flexible personal emergency leave (including seven paid) and an end to sick notes.

“At the end of the day, those workers who are not getting paid and getting asked to stay home and/or self-isolate are being put in an untenable position if they don’t follow what their employer says, they could lose their job,” says Ladd. “Even those looking to be tested are having to move fast, because they can’t lose a day of work. Many of us can’t afford to go two weeks without pay, some live pay-cheque to pay-cheque as it is. People want to follow public health advice, but it’s a difficult choice between wages and health.”

What to do if you have to self-isolate

If you’re in quarantine and are missing work because you’ve run out of or do not have sick days, it’s worth noting that you can be fired – though it is unlikely under the circumstances and there are ways to fight back. Non-unionized employees are at the most risk.

First, if you are sick and showing symptoms, provide your employer with a sick note. In the case of those who are unable to work from home or take time off in companies or buildings where there have been confirmed cases, Whitten & Lublin employment lawyer Athanasios Makrinos says, “The employee has the right to refuse work in hazardous spaces if they’re adamant it is hazardous to their health. But you also have to be able to distinguish between cold and COVID-19 symptoms.”

Alternatively, Makrinos suggests employees use their vacation entitlement or ask their employer to be laid off, after which they can apply for EI. The latter option is now somewhat more feasible thanks to the federal government waiving of the waiting period, though it still requires individuals to have logged at least 600 hours of work. According to Decent Work, only 40 per cent of unemployed people qualify despite the government billing the move as an economic “stabilizer.”

Employers are also in the right to temporarily lay off employees, enforce their vacation time and tell them they can’t come in to work if they’ve recently travelled from high-risk places, which can also provoke a discrimination-based conflict.

“It’s messy,” says Ladd. “What we need, eventually, is a good sick day policy, a better EI system, and an emergency fund for those who don’t qualify for EI in the first place and for those who work in a sector that is more likely to be affected, like tourism, hospitality or healthcare. Who this will affect the most are low-income people of colour, immigrants, those in the service industry. These are people who are already struggling to make ends meet. We have to ask: how can we help them?”

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