British Columbia

What employers and employees need to know during the COVID-19 pandemic

As the ongoing pandemic throws workplaces into uncharted territory, B.C. labour lawyers say it’s a good time for everyone to become familiar with their rights.

B.C. employers aren't obligated to pay sick leave, but employees have other options

Hockey championship banners line the walls at Brewer Park Arena above an assessment station at the COVID-19 Assessment Centre in Ottawa, during a media tour on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

No, you can't get fired if you get coronavirus — but your employer might not have to pay you for the time you'll need off, two Vancouver employment lawyers say. 

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic throws workplaces into uncharted territory, it's a good time for everyone to become familiar with their rights, said Richard Johnson, a partner at Kent Employment Law in Vancouver. 

Johnson says he's fronting calls from employers concerned with how to manage employees while keeping businesses afloat, and employees who are worried what will happen to their paycheques if they're quarantined. 

"We are all, as a collective, trying to grapple with the issue and listening to sometimes competing information," he said. 

"I think it's really important to work together on this, to try to find solutions that can help business to continue."

Employees wondering about paid time off should start by looking at their contract. People cannot lose their jobs for getting sick or having to go into quarantine, Johnson said, and for some roles, there should be the option of working from home. 

"You can't discriminate based on a medical issue or a medical leave," he said. 

Employers have an obligation to take reasonable steps to ensure the workplace is safe and clean, one Vancouver lawyer says. (CBC)

Unionized staff may have a collective agreement in place that outlines any sick leave or pay employees are entitled to, Johnson said.

Some benefits packages include short- and long-term disability pay. 

A potential issue can arise if employees have to self-isolate, but do not have symptoms and have not been diagnosed, he said. 

"They're the ones caught in a real conundrum because they don't qualify for a medically driven disability leave," Johnson said. 

If an employee has no paid sick leave or has already used it, the employer isn't obligated to offer any extra, he said. 

If an employer won't budge, people have options.

Employers obligated to keep workplace safe

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1-billion package this week to help Canadians cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The federal government will also waive the one-week waiting period for employment insurance to assist workers and businesses affected by the coronavirus, and explore other measures to support affected Canadians, including income supports for those who are not eligible for EI sickness benefits.

However, employers have the right to require employees to stay home if they're sick, Johnson said. Workers must also report their sickness to their employer because it's a potential safety issue for their colleagues, he added. 

Andrea Raso, a partner at Clark Wilson LLP in Vancouver, said she's getting many questions from employers wondering about emergency preparedness in the workplace and how to respond to questions from employees.

Employers in B.C. have an obligation to take "reasonable" steps to ensure their workplace is safe, Raso said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, they should be communicating with employees about staying home when ill, proper hand washing and travel restrictions.

"All the things that the Canadian government is telling, that's what [the] employer should be communicating to their employees in a formal way," Raso said. 

"And they should also be providing things like hand sanitizers where available."

An employer's ability to offer any level of sick pay may depend on how long the pandemic lasts, how many staff become sick or quarantined, and the size of the company, Raso said. 

"We're all looking to employers to do the right thing and to do what they can in the circumstances bearing in mind that when employees are not working, employers aren't making money, Raso said.

"We'll just have to see how this plays out."

Both Raso and Johnson agree it's going to take some flexibility on behalf of employers and employees to get through the pandemic.

They say the government will have to step in and offer more emergency funding and relaxed conditions to claim EI to help both employees and employers. 

Johnson suggests a wage replacement program so that there is honest sick reporting and people aren't tempted to work when they're ill for fear of losing income. 

"This is a real opportunity for businesses and the government to step up and really provide some meaningful support," Johnson said.

"Those types of things are going to mean the difference between people's livelihood or losing your house."

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca

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