International students misinformed about pandemic-related change to work rules
Confusing language on federal government website led schools and employers to misinterpret rule change
Some businesses and schools operating in Quebec gave incorrect advice to international students about how many hours they are allowed to work after the federal government temporarily changed the rules.
Organizations say they tried in good faith to apply rules intended to support students during the COVID-19 pandemic. But confusing and contradictory language in a government document led some to unintentionally mislead them instead.
Worried that their immigration status could be affected, some students opted to reduce their work hours.
"That was huge confusion for me," Rahul Patel, a student from India at Montreal's Matrix College told CBC News.
Change meant to help cope with pandemic
Federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced the change on April 22.
Normally, international students can work a maximum of 20 hours a week while classes are in session. Mendicino lifted that restriction, provided students were working in an essential service, until the end of August.
The confusion in Quebec started when the province gradually began reopening businesses last month.
Some colleges and employers assumed the reopening meant Ottawa's rule change no longer applied, since many services were no longer officially deemed essential by the province.
They told international students they had to stop working more than 20 hours a week, but that advice turned out to be wrong.
When Patel heard in April that he could work more hours at his part-time job at Tim Hortons, he jumped at the chance.
"With tuition fees and cost of living here, it's getting difficult," Patel said.
"That helps support your needs, and makes you less dependent on your parents. That's really helpful."
Patel started working 32 hours a week instead of his usual 20. But two months later, he started hearing rumours from other international students that the rule change no longer applied.
Patel's roommate works for meal kit delivery company Goodfood. In late June, the company sent a note to employees saying that international students could no longer work more than 20 hours a week.
Patel checked government websites, but couldn't find a clear answer. And he knew if he broke the rules, his status could be threatened.
No one at his school or at Tim Hortons asked Patel to stop working more than 20 hours a week, but he decided to do it anyway.
"I was feeling confused and I am scared of that, so I didn't know what to do," he said.
CBC News heard from other international students, most of whom not wanting to be named, who were equally confused because of guidance they received from their employers and schools.
An email sent by Vanier College on June 26 told international students in its continuing education program that they must return to working no more than 20 hours per week.
"As a result of all of the reopenings, the Quebec government has decided to stop considering any business as essential. Thus, in Quebec, there are no more 'essential services,'" the email said.
It explained that with no formal notice of a change, "discovering this information required quite some digging on our part, including multiple calls to both Canada and Quebec immigration and employment offices."
Employers and educational institutions contacted by CBC News said they based their decisions largely on a federal government document attached as a link to Mendicino's announcement in April.
The document is called Guidance on Essential Services and Functions in Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic and includes a detailed list of services the federal government considers essential.
The confusion comes in a paragraph at the bottom of the document, where it's explained that the list is only meant to serve as a guideline for provinces.
"If you are looking to determine if a specific job or service is deemed essential, please review the list of essential businesses / services / functions published by your province or territory," the document says.
"Your provincial or territorial government, not the federal government, has the authority to make these determinations."
Goodfood spokesperson Roslane Aouameur says it was this paragraph that prompted the company to tell international students in Quebec that their service was no longer considered essential.
Rowena Selby, a spokesperson for Vanier College, said the college sent guidance to its continuing education students based on advice from the provincial federation of CEGEPs. A spokesperson for the federation told CBC News it also based its advice to institutions across the province largely on that paragraph.
A spokesperson for Quebec's Immigration Ministry referred CBC News to the same document when asked which international students in the province could still work for more than 20 hours per week.
Paragraph doesn't apply
Rémi Larivière, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, told CBC News in an email that employers should be consulting the federal list.
"It is the appropriate guide for a federal measure, rather than using specific lists that differ from province to province and change frequently. This list is the list by which essential services under this temporary policy is defined," Larivière said.
This is despite the fact the guide itself recommends checking with provinces and territories for the final ruling on which services are deemed essential.
International students and employers are still both clearly confused.
Selby said Vanier College was being cautious when interpreting the rule and is waiting for more details.
"We have so far received no information from them that this has indeed been clarified," she said.
Goodfood's spokesperson says the company is also looking for answers from the federal government.
"We have received (verbally) conflicting conclusions. We are looking for a written confirmation so we can move forward," said Aouameur.