North

Unpaid emergency leave now available for N.W.T. workers

Workers in the Northwest Territories can now take unpaid emergency leave as of July 1, according to recent changes made to the Employment Standards Act and Regulations.

Changes to the Employment Standards Act and Regulations ensures job protection in case of an emergency

As of July 1, N.W.T. employees are no longer at risk of losing their jobs for taking time off for emergencies. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Workers in the Northwest Territories can now take unpaid emergency leave, according to recent changes made to the Employment Standards Act and Regulations.

These changes, effective as of July 1, provide additional job protection to workers when they're unable to perform their duties due to an emergency, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

R.J. Simpson, N.W.T.'s minister of education, culture and employment, said many workers were legally required to self-isolate during the pandemic and subsequently, were at risk of losing their jobs.

"We wanted to ensure that people who … were required to self isolate had some protection for their employment and they weren't let go because they were following the law," said Simpson.

The conditions

Workers are entitled to emergency leave for COVID-19 if they're self-isolating, under medical supervision or treatment, receiving a COVID-19 vaccine or at risk of exposing others to the virus.

They can also access leave if they're caring for family members affected by COVID-19, under circumstances such as a school closure, or if they can't get to work due to travel restrictions.

Emergency leave for COVID-19 is retroactive to March 18 of last year, meaning anyone who was terminated because they were unable to go to work for pandemic-related reasons may be able to file a complaint with the N.W.T.'s Employment Standards Office.

"Based on that investigation, the Employment Standards Office will determine whether or not, for example, wages are due or if there's termination pay that is owed," said Simpson.

As well, employees can now access unpaid leave for any future emergencies outside of the pandemic.

There is no maximum amount of time an individual can take for their leave. According to the Act, the period of leave ends when "the employee is no longer unable to work as a result of the emergency or when the emergency ends."

The N.W.T. Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife on May 28, 2021. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Lack of protection for workers

Lorraine Rousseau, the North's regional executive vice-president of Public Service Alliance of Canada, says this is a "really encouraging start."

"You shouldn't have to lose your job just because you have something to attend to [such as] an emergency or if you're sick. It's a vicious cycle," said Rousseau.

Simpson said the pandemic highlighted a lot of longstanding issues — including the lack of protection for workers who face emergencies of any kind.

"This will ensure that there is job security when people are required to miss work for emergency situations that are really beyond their control," said Simpson.

Simpson said the federal government has programs that employees can take advantage of, such as the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB). However, there will be no territorial support.

Rousseau says while the protection offered from the unpaid emergency leave is important, she wants better for workers in the North.

"If it's leave without pay, OK, as long as they have a job to come back [to]," said Rousseau. "But you know what's even better? Pay them while they're on leave so they'll come back."

Rousseau would also like to see better accessibility to food and connectivity for northern workers.

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