Will I still get paid? A guide to working in Quebec in the pandemic

What are your legal rights if you feel unsafe in your workplace? When can you work from home? CBC asks the legal experts.

What are your legal rights if you feel unsafe? When can you work from home? CBC asks legal experts

Montrealers are practising social distancing in restaurants. There are no special regulations protecting workers who deal face to face with the public, but workers do have the right to ask someone who is ignoring self-isolation directives to leave, a legal expert says. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Here are some answers to your questions about your rights as an employee, the obligations of employers, and government measures to help workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This is an evolving situation, with provincial and federal governments announcing new measures every day, so the policies and programs currently in place may change.

Many questions don't have a single, straightforward answer: your case will depend on the specifics of your contract, whether your position is unionized, and whether it falls under provincial or federal jurisdiction.

What happens to people whose place of work closes temporarily or permanently because of the virus?

Standard unemployment insurance procedures likely apply in this case; this how-to article outlines the details, including around assistance announced by the federal government for people who don't qualify for EI. 

If I'm obliged to self-isolate, does my employer still have to pay me?

The Labour Standards Act obliges employers to pay a worker for the first two days of a health-related absence — although many employers offer additional sick leave.

However, the provincial government will pay workers who have to self-isolate $573 per week, available for two to four weeks. The federal government is expected to roll out a similar program. 

If you're able to work from home during this time, you will collect your regular wages, in which case you won't be eligible for the government top-up.

Schools and daycares are closed, and I need to take care of my kids. Will I continue to get paid?

The Labour Standards Act sets out 10 days per year in which a parent may be absent from work to care for a child. As in the self-isolation case, the employer must pay the worker's salary for the first two days, but has no legal obligation beyond that — again, there may be provisions within specific contracts that will differ from this. 

If you can arrange to work from home, you should be paid your usual salary.

What are your legal options if you're more vulnerable to COVID-19 and your employer is telling you to come to work?

Normally you'd need to get a medical certificate to stay home, says Mariane Plamondon, a partner with Langlois Lawyers who specializes in labour and employment law. But in the COVID-19 era, with health services being stretched thin, seeking that certificate is going to take up health system resources. 

"If the employer has no reason to doubt the position of the employee they should allow a leave in these circumstances, in order for the person to take no risk for their health or safety," says Plamondon.

If your employer isn't taking your situation seriously, there are various legal avenues available depending on the circumstances, says Jérémy Little, a labour law expert at OLS Attorneys. "You are entitled to reasonable accommodation of any health condition you may have."

Can I be fired for refusing to work in a place I feel is putting me at risk?

The mere existence of COVID-19 does not in itself constitute an unsafe situation, Plamondon notes. It doesn't qualify as a legal reason for an employee to refuse to work under Quebec's workplace health and safety law: the province's public health authorities have not sought to close workplaces, and the risk is still considered relatively low.

Quebec's workplace health and safety board, the CNESST, has a mechanism for dealing with any situation where there is a disagreement between an employer and an employee about workplace safety that leads to a refusal to work. In such a situation (whether or not it is related to COVID-19), a CNESST inspector will intervene and "determine immediately whether or not a danger exists that would justify the worker's refusal to work," the board's website explains.

The decision is effective immediately, the site notes, and must be respected even if the parties do not agree with it.

What if you're in a job where you're in close contact with members of the public  some of whom are not respecting government requests around self-isolation? 

Quebec's employers are obliged to take all necessary measures to protect the health and safety of their employees. 

At the same time, "employees have the right to tell members of the public who should be self-quarantining that they must leave," says Little.

There isn't a simple legal answer to what constitutes a job with the potential for that situation, but there is a simple societal answer, Little says: everyone has to step up, which means respecting self-isolation guidelines but also helping to keep the economy afloat.

"One has to realize that the damage to society if everybody refuses to go to work will also be quite severe," he says. "Look at the industries we depend upon. What if everyone from the health and social services sector refused to come in?

"People really do have to demonstrate some amount of solidarity."

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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