Will you get paid if you self-isolate for coronavirus? It depends
There's no federal legislation that provides paid sick days for all Canadian workers
The federal government and many employers are urging Canadians to stay home and self-isolate for 14 days if they've been exposed to COVID-19 or if they're feeling sick — but that has triggered questions about workers' rights and how employees can recoup lost wages.
"There's no guarantee you'll get paid," said Jamie Jurczak, a partner and labour lawyer at Taylor McCaffrey in Winnipeg.
"It's very much going to depend on what your employer has in place for you, collective agreement or otherwise, in terms of your employment agreement and what time you're allowed to take off for sick time," she said. "Do you have disability benefits? Would those benefits trigger if you're still alive and well but want to self-isolate?"
Jurczak has been getting questions from employers on what obligations they have to their workers who need to go into self-isolation because they're sick with COVID-19 or are worried they've been exposed to it.
Her first response?
"You really shouldn't fire somebody for being sick and in fact I would say the law is pretty clear on that, whether it's employment standards or even we have to consider human rights legislation," Jurczak said.
"If somebody is sick, it doesn't matter the reason, doesn't matter if it's COVID-19, they're obviously entitled to likely some sort of sick time."
What workers are entitled to depends on whether they're a federal employee, unionized or not, what province or territory they live in, and their employment status.
There is no federal legislation providing paid sick days for all Canadian workers.
The Canada Labour Code gives federal employees up to five days a year of sick leave. If someone has been with the same employer for more than three months, three of those five days could be with pay.
Non-federal employees need to follow provincial legislation, and that can vary (see complete chart at bottom).
In Manitoba, the minimum is three days of unpaid sick time. In Alberta, the minimum is five days unpaid.
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People unable to work because of the coronavirus are likely eligible to claim benefits, including short- and long-term disability, but many of those sick leave policies are not broad enough to cover someone who needs to be quarantined but is not actually sick.
"I'm telling [employers] to look at their sick leave policies and see what they provide for. Would they be flexible enough to allow someone who appears well and wants to self-isolate to use that sick time? Is it more appropriate to take vacation?" Jurczak said.
Couple self-isolated after trip to China
When Gary Liu and his wife returned home to Winnipeg after an aborted trip to China in January, they both decided to self-isolate for two weeks, even though neither of them had symptoms.
"You have incubation time of 14 days. Before the 14 days, you don't know if you are infected or not," he said.
Liu's wife is a provincial IT specialist, so she worked from home and got her regular paycheque.
He's a federal employee at the National Microbiology Lab, but he took unpaid holiday time as part of an income-averaging program. The NML is responsible for doing final confirmation of presumptive positive results provided by regional and provincial labs, which are doing the initial tests.
"I knew what is more important. If I spread the virus, it would be very bad. I would feel terrible, so I better stay home," he said, noting that neither he nor his wife got sick, so they returned to work.
Things get even more complicated if someone isn't infected, but is self-isolating over concerns they've been exposed to COVID-19 — and companies are handling it differently.
Different companies have different responses
At the Palliser Furniture factory in Winnipeg, president and CEO Peter Tielmann says business travel is already restricted.
"We do buy a lot of materials from China. Right now, nobody is allowed to travel there. We work a lot with Italy. Nobody goes there right now," he said.
Personal trips are another issue.
"Spring break is coming up. We're telling our people, 'Please be mindful where you go, what you do,'" Tielmann said. "You can't say [they're] not allowed to go."
However, the company sent out memos last week telling workers to inform human resources if they are planning a personal trip, and to provide an itinerary if asked.
And workers were warned that if they require self-quarantine and can't work from home when they return, they will not be entitled to their regular wages.
Most of the company's employees build and upholster furniture, which has to be done in the factory.
"Right now, we have no other choice," Tielmann said. "We have to try to be as cautious as we possibly can, as careful as we possibly can to try to prevent it."
Home Depot of Canada has put all travel to and from China, Italy and Iran on hold and implemented a 14-day quarantine for anyone who has returned from those countries in the last two weeks. If they are unable to work from home, they will still be paid for that time, Paul Berto, director of corporate communications, wrote in a statement to CBC News.
Anyone testing positive for coronavirus because of travel from those areas doesn't have to use their sick, personal or vacation time.
Meanwhile, Canada Life is exposed on two levels — both as a large employer and as an insurance company helping 30,000 employers provide benefits plans to their staff.
On the corporate side, Canada Life has eliminated all non-essential and international business travel and is encouraging e-commuting options like web conferencing, says a statement provided by a company spokesperson.
Anyone who has recently travelled to risk zones including China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan must self-isolate for 14 days. That also applies if they've had contact with anyone from one of those areas, whether or not symptoms are present.
As a benefits provider, "Canada Life, together with our industry peers, has been working with the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association on an industry approach to handling claims relating to the coronavirus."
So far, most of the concerns the company is hearing from plan members relate to out-of-country medical emergency and travel assistance, as well as disability coverage.
"Canada Life will continue to assess claims relating to coronavirus based on the terms of the plan member's respective group benefits plan, including any claims that occur during travel to a country with a travel advisory warning," the statement said.
The company is also waiving the waiting period for anyone eligible for short-term disability benefits related to the coronavirus. It will also consider claims for people who are under quarantine at the direction of a physician, treatment provider or other public health official, and who are unable to work from home.
"We are adopting this approach to help minimize any financial disincentive to support the quarantine efforts across Canada," the statement said.
Some feel financial pressures to work when sick
However, none of this helps workers in the service industry or people working part time or who are on a low income, who are facing financial pressure to show up for work even if they are feeling sick.
"For many of the people that we work with, that's not a choice that they can make," said Deena Ladd of the Toronto Workers' Action Centre, a member of the Fight for $15 and Fairness Coalition. It's pushing for seven paid sick days, an end to the requirement for a doctor's note and easier access to Employment Insurance, which is one of the easiest ways to recoup lost wages from quarantine.
"People have to make a decision as to whether or not they're going to pay their rent, put food on the table, take care of their kids, or stay home and not be paid," Ladd said.
"Government policy at the federal and provincial level is completely inadequate in terms of dealing with this public health crisis. And I think that they really need to take a close look at what they are doing because out of all the provinces in Canada, Quebec is the only province that has to pay sick days."
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1-billion fund to help Canadians cope with the spread of COVID-19, with half of the money going to the provinces and territories.
He also said the federal government is "pulling out all the stops" to help Canadians through the global health crisis.
The federal government said it will waive the one-week waiting period for employment insurance to assist workers and businesses affected by the novel coronavirus, and is exploring additional measures to support other affected Canadians, including income support for those who are not eligible for EI sickness benefits.
With files from Cameron MacIntosh