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Your Questions About Coronavirus and Work

Answers to common work-related questions arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

After being laid off when the pandemic hit, I’ve been called back to work. As much as it’ll be great to get a full pay cheque again, I’m worried. My boss hasn’t been taking COVID-19 very seriously. It doesn’t feel like my workplace will be safe. What can I do?"

– Joseph, Victoria

Can I refuse to work during the pandemic?

There are certain situations where that’s a definite yes. Examples would be if you have COVID-19-like symptoms or have arrived from outside of Canada in the last 14 days. WorkSafeBC outlines situations where workers must not go to work.

More generally, workers have the right to refuse work if they believe it presents an undue hazard. WorkSafeBC explains what amounts to an undue hazard. It’s an “unwarranted, inappropriate, excessive, or disproportionate” hazard. For COVID-19, an undue hazard is one where a worker’s job role places them at increased risk of exposure and adequate controls are not in place to protect them from that exposure.

In these circumstances, WorkSafeBC advises to follow these steps within your workplace to resolve the issue. The first step is reporting the unsafe condition to your employer. The employer must investigate the matter and fix it if possible. If the matter is not resolved, you and your employer must contact WorkSafeBC. A prevention officer will investigate and take steps to find a workable solution.

I’ve heard workplaces must have a COVID-19 safety plan. What is that?

Every employer in BC is required to have a COVID-19 safety plan. The plan must assess the risk of exposure at the workplace and spell out measures to keep workers safe. For example, the plan may involve limiting the number of workers on site, to ensure physical distancing guidelines are respected. WorkSafeBC explains what the COVID-19 safety plan must cover, and has a template employers can use to create their plan.

By order of the provincial health officer, the COVID-19 safety plan must be posted at the workplace and on the organization’s website.

A workplace does not need a formal safety plan in place to begin operation, but employers are expected to develop the plan while protecting the safety of their workers.

Can my employer just tell me not to come in?

They can. In some cases, they may ask you to work from home, which they can do to protect the safety of the workplace as a whole. Otherwise, if they're no longer paying you (or paying you significantly less), this would be considered a lay off.

But, will I get paid?

If you’re laid off, your employer owes you any wages you’ve earned that they haven’t yet paid. They also owe you severance pay — unless it’s a valid “temporary layoff” (check out our question below about this type of layoff). The amount of severance can vary. It depends on how long you worked for them, what’s in your employment contract, and other factors. Take a look at our information on severance pay.

This is a trying time for both workers and employers. If you like your job, try to keep communication lines open with your manager through the crisis to understand when you may be able to come back. 

Am I eligible for financial aid?

Emergency government programs are available to workers affected by the pandemic. The Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) is a $2,000 payment every four weeks, for up to 24 weeks. It's available to those whose work has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also available to workers eligible for employment insurance regular or sickness benefits, and those who have recently exhausted their EI benefits.

Those approved for the Canada emergency response benefit can also get the BC emergency benefit for workers, a one-time $1,000 payment.

We have guidance to help with figuring out which benefits you’re eligible for. We walk you through the factors in play and the steps to take action.

How do I apply for the emergency benefits everyone’s talking about?

The Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) is a key support for workers affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The government is advising everyone applying for federal benefits, whether CERB or employment insurance, to start the application on the CERB portal. The portal guides you through a set of questions, and routes you to where you submit your benefits application.

As well, if your ability to work has been affected by the outbreak, you can apply for the BC emergency benefit for workers. This is a one-time $1,000 payment.

I was told my layoff was just “temporary.” What does this mean?

A temporary layoff is a specific type of layoff where employers don’t have to pay severance. But employers can’t do this unless at least one of these three things applies: you’re in an industry where layoffs are standard practice (for example, forestry), you agree to the layoff, or it’s in your employment contract. The pandemic, on its own, does not give your employer a legal right to lay you off temporarily.

If none of the reasons above apply, then you have a right to receive severance pay. The amount depends on how long you worked for them, what’s in your contract, and other factors.

If they’re allowed, temporary layoffs still can’t last forever (they call ‘em temporary for good reason). Generally, it’s a maximum of 13 weeks. Right now, if the temporary layoff is because of the COVID-19 emergency, BC has extended the maximum length of a temporary layoff to 24 weeks. After that, if you don’t get your job back, you’d typically be eligible for severance.

While you’re laid off, you can apply for federal benefits. In addition to employment insurance, you may be eligible for the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB). It provides $2,000 every four weeks, for up to 24 weeks. It’s available to (among others) workers who still have their job but aren’t working or whose hours have been cut due to the coronavirus outbreak. The government is advising everyone applying for federal benefits, whether EI or CERB, to start the application on the CERB portal.

As well, workers affected by the pandemic can apply for the BC emergency benefit for workers. This is a one-time $1,000 payment.

My workplace cut my salary in half. Can they do this?

If you’re still working full-time, then cutting your salary in half could be considered constructive dismissal. This is when your employer changes your job in a major way, and you don’t agree to it. If you want to quit over this, you’d likely be entitled to severance pay. But proving constructive dismissal is no small matter. You may choose to discuss the situation with your employer, perhaps reducing your hours to part-time to match up with the reduced salary.

If your work hours are reduced because your workplace has to slow down because of the pandemic, you can apply for employment insurance benefits. (To qualify, you need to, among other things, have gone at least seven days without work and without pay.) Or, if your work hours are substantially cut, you can apply for the Canada emergency response benefit. The CERB benefit provides $2,000 every four weeks, for up to 24 weeks. It’s available to workers who currently earn no more than $1,000 per month.

The government is advising everyone applying for federal benefits, whether EI or CERB, to start the application on the CERB portal.

As well, be aware that those approved for CERB can apply for the BC emergency benefit for workers. This is a one-time $1,000 payment.

I’m feeling ill. Can I take time off work and keep my job?

On March 23, the BC government established two new types of unpaid leave for those unable to work due to illness. An employee can now take up to three days of unpaid leave each year if they can't work due to personal illness or injury. This is a permanent change to the law. It provides job protection for illness or injury similar to what workers get in other parts of Canada. You must have been in the job for at least 90 days to qualify for this leave.

There’s also now an unpaid, job-protected leave due to COVID-19 reasons. Employees can take an indefinite unpaid leave if they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 and are following the instructions of a medical health officer or the advice of a doctor or nurse. This leave is also available for other coronavirus-related reasons, such as if your employer directs you not to work due to concern about your exposure to others. The Employment Standards Branch explains who’s covered.

Our laws prevent discrimination against workers if they have a disability. And it seems, at this time, that having COVID-19 amounts to a disability. So this means your employer can’t treat you differently — without justification — than someone who doesn’t have it. For example: they can ask you to work from home so that everyone can stay healthy, but they can't deny you, say, a promotion or flexible work arrangements just because you have COVID-19.

Plus: the province is advising employers they must excuse workers for sick leave without requiring a doctor’s note, where workers are ill or required to self-isolate due to COVID-19.

Will I get paid when I take a sick day?

There are no laws in BC requiring employers to give paid sick days. But many employers provide them, recognizing it’s better to let you rest and recover. You can ask your employer for extra paid sick days, but they may be feeling the crunch too and cannot afford it. We offer tips on working things through with your employer.

If your employer has an extended health plan, you may be covered under short-term disability benefits (ask your plan administrator). 

You can also apply for federal benefits. If you’re unable to work because of illness or quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic, you can apply for employment insurance sickness benefits. As well, the Canada emergency response benefit is available for (among others) workers who are sick with COVID-19. It provides $2,000 every four weeks for up to 24 weeks. The government is advising everyone applying for federal benefits, whether EI or CERB, to start the application on the CERB portal.

Also be aware that those approved for CERB benefits can apply for the BC emergency benefit for workers. This is a one-time $1,000 payment.

I’m self-employed, but now I’m sick and can’t work at all. What are my options?

Employees in BC have their wages backstopped against layoffs. A self-employed person doesn’t, unless they register themselves and pay into the employment insurance system.  

Those who do register can get EI sickness benefits, paid to those who can’t work for medical reasons. Here's who can qualify.

For those who aren’t covered by EI, the new Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) is a game changer. The CERB benefit provides $2,000 every four weeks for up to 24 weeks to those who have stopped working for reasons related to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s available to self-employed people (including contract workers) who would not otherwise be eligible for EI.

The government is advising everyone applying for federal benefits, whether CERB or EI, to start the application on the CERB portal.

Note as well that those approved for CERB benefits can apply for the BC emergency benefit for workers, a one-time $1,000 payment .

I’ve got to take care of my kids. Will I still get paid?

It’s unlikely your employer will continue paying your salary if you can't continue to work (although it doesn’t hurt to ask). And normally, you can’t claim employment insurance benefits if you quit your job or have to take care of a family member who isn’t critically ill.

Thankfully, federal and provincial governments have made some big changes.

First, the federal government has expanded its child benefit, providing an extra $300 per child, per year.

Plus, the new Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) is available to working parents who must stay home without pay to care for kids that are sick or need additional care because of school and daycare closures. This benefit provides $2,000 every four weeks, for up to 24 weeks. You can apply on the CERB portal.

As well, those approved for CERB benefits can apply for a $1,000 emergency benefit from the BC government.

Will my job be there when I get back?

The laws in BC provide for unpaid leaves of absence, where an employee can take time off without pay and still have their job waiting for them when they get back. We explain personal and family leaves and sick leave, and offer tips on how to ask for a leave.

The amount of leave varies, depending on the type of leave. Employees get three days of unpaid leave each year if they can't work due to personal illness or injury (note: this is new). They also get five days of unpaid leave per year to care for someone in their immediate family. They get between 16 to 36 weeks to care for a family member (depending on their age) that is critically ill. Whether COVID-19 qualifies as “critically ill” is not certain.

Plus: On March 23, the BC government introduced an unpaid, job-protected leave due to COVID-19 reasons. Someone can take an indefinite unpaid leave if they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, and for a range of other coronavirus-related reasons. Workers who have to self-isolate, need to care for children or family, or were told to stay away from work by their boss will be able to take an unpaid leave without putting their job at risk. 

Note that these rules only cover “employees”, not contractors or gig-economy workers.

As well, under our human rights laws, employers must not discriminate against people based on certain personal characteristics (for example, religion, disabilities, or family status). If you’re disadvantaged at work because of a personal characteristic, your employer has a duty to accommodate you. If you have kids to take care of, it’s likely your employer has to take reasonable steps to accommodate you. But you should take certain steps here before asking for extended leave time. For example, you might see if family members can help, or if child care is available. 

Can my employer ask me if I have COVID-19?

Yes. Your employer has to make sure all of their employees work in a safe environment. This applies whether the workplace is big or small. They can ask (or require you to tell them) if you have the illness or have been in contact with somebody who has. They can also require you to self-quarantine if you’ve recently returned from a coronavirus outbreak hotspot.

Your employer can also remind you to wash your hands and tell you to be prepared to work from home.

Who’s Covered by BC’s Employment Standards Law

Learn if you’re protected under BC’s employment standards law. 

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The main provincial law that protects workers in British Columbia is called the Employment Standards Act. It sets minimum standards for wages and working conditions. However, some workers are excluded from the protection of this law, or parts of it. Your rights in the workplace and your options to deal with problems depend on whether or not you’re covered. Learn if you’re protected under BC’s employment standards law.

Most workers are covered

“I work two jobs. One of my employers said I wasn’t entitled to extra pay for working on stat holidays, as I was an ‘independent contractor.’ I made a complaint to the Employment Standards Branch. They found the Employment Standards Act applies to me. They said if there’s any doubt whether an exception to the Act applies, it’s resolved in favour of the worker.”

– Melissa, Burnaby

The Employment Standards Act applies to employees. The definition of who is an employee is very broad. It’s intended to cover as many work relationships as possible. 

You’re seen to be an employee under this law if any of the following apply:

  • You perform work for another for wages. It doesn’t matter how many hours you work or if your job is permanent or temporary. 
  • An employer allows you to perform work normally done by an employee. This can be done directly or indirectly. For example, if an employee asks you to cover their shift, you’re an employee. Even if your employer doesn’t know about this arrangement. 
  • You’re being trained by an employer for their business. This includes a trial period for a prospective employee.
  • You’re on leave from an employer. This includes maternity or parental leave, or illness or injury leave.
  • You have a right of recall. This can come up if you’re temporarily laid off. It means you get to return to work.

If you meet the definition of employee, you’re covered by the Employment Standards Act unless an exception applies. There are a number of exceptions. We explain them below. 

If there’s any doubt whether an exception to the Employment Standards Act applies, it is resolved in favour of the worker. The Act applies.

Exception if you work as an independent contractor

The Employment Standards Act doesn’t cover independent contractors. An independent contractor is seen to be self-employed (and so not an “employee”). In other words, they run their own business.  

Figuring out whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor can be tricky. 

Factors in play

There are several factors to consider. An employee (as defined in the Act) is a person “entitled to wages for work performed for another.” An employer is a person who has “control or direction of an employee.”  

The topic of direction and control is important. Does the person paying you direct the work and say how it’s done? If the answer is “Yes,” that leans towards you being seen as an employee. 

Independent contractors are less controlled by the employer. A contractor would be more likely to set their own hours, determine how to perform the work, and provide their own equipment. 

A contractor also shares more of the risk. They’re more likely to be financially affected than an employee if the business does well or poorly.

Other factors include:

  • Clients. Is the person paying you your only gig or one of many? 
  • Ongoing relationship. Have you worked for them for a long time?
  • Connection to business. Is the work you do closely connected to the purpose of the business? 

More “Yes” answers mean you are more likely to be seen as an employee than as an independent contractor.

Some examples

The Employment Standards Branch is the government office that enforces the Act. They provide helpful examples of how they decide this question. Any doubt is resolved in favour of the worker. The Act is intended to protect as many workers as possible. 

Is someone an independent contractor or an employee?

Factor

Independent contractor

Employee

Degree of direction and control

Worker is more in control, setting their own hours, determining how to perform the work, and providing their own equipment.

More controlled by the employer, who sets hours, decides how work should be performed, and provides equipment.

Ongoing relationship

Is hired to do a specific time-limited job.

Is in an ongoing working relationship. 

Connection to business

The work performed is not integral to the business.

The work performed is closely connected to the purpose of the business.

Number of clients Has a number of clients. Relies on a single employer or business as their primary or sole source of income.

Risk

More chance of profit and risk of loss.

Less (or no) chance of profit or loss.

Calling someone an independent contractor doesn’t mean they are. Even if you sign something saying you’re an independent contractor, you may still be an employee under the law. Any agreement that tries to get around the requirements of the Employment Standards Act is not valid. 

Exception if you work in a federally-regulated workplace

If you work for an employer regulated by the federal government, you are not covered by the Employment Standards Act. Instead, a federal law called the Canada Labour Code applies. Around 6% of Canadian workers fall into this category.

Which employers are federally regulated? Examples include banks, airlines, and telecoms. The Canadian government website lists federally-regulated businesses and industries.

There are many similarities in how the Employment Standards Act and the Canada Labour Code protect workers. Both, for example, have rules for minimum wage, overtime pay, and holidays. But there are also important differences, especially for workers fired without cause.

If you work in a federally-regulated workplace, Employment and Social Development Canada can help you understand your rights in the workplace.

Exception if you work in certain licensed professions

The Employment Standards Act doesn’t apply to people working in certain licensed professions. Examples include doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers and realtors. The Employment Standards Branch lists the professions not covered by the Act

This doesn’t mean these professionals have no rights at the workplace. Other provincial laws, such as human rights laws and workers compensation laws, still apply — even though the Employment Standards Act doesn’t.

If you work in a licensed profession not covered by the Employment Standards Act, the body that regulates the profession can help you understand your rights in the workplace. For example, the Architectural Institute of British Columbia regulates architects in the province.

Exception if you’re a student, a babysitter, or enrolled in certain government incentive programs

The Employment Standards Act does not apply to students working in certain jobs:

  • secondary-school students working at their school or in work-study programs
  • primary- or secondary-school students working as newspaper carriers 15 hours a week or fewer

The Act doesn’t apply to babysitters. A babysitter is someone employed solely to attend to a child or other person in someone else’s private residence. It’s not someone working in a day care facility. 

The Act doesn’t apply to people who are in certain government incentive programs while receiving income assistance, disability benefits, or employment insurance. 

The Employment Standards Branch provides details of each of these categories.

If you’re a member of a union

Workers who belong to unions are covered by the collective agreements negotiated between their union and employer. Any collective agreement made or renewed after May 30, 2019 must meet or exceed the minimum standards of the Employment Standards Act in a number of areas. These include: 

  • hours of work and overtime 
  • statutory holidays 
  • annual vacation and vacation pay 
  • minimum notice provisions 

If provisions of the collective agreement fall below those minimum standards, then the Act applies instead.

If you belong to a union, speak with your union representative to learn about your rights in the workplace. 

If you work in an occupation that’s partially excluded from the Act

Some occupations fall partly outside the Employment Standards Act. This means some of the laws apply to these occupations but others do not. Here are some examples. The Employment Standards Branch provides a full list of occupations that are excluded from parts of the Act

High-tech professionals

A “high-tech professional” is excluded from the sections of the Act dealing with hours of work, overtime, and statutory holiday entitlements. The Employment Standards Branch explains who this applies to.

Silviculture workers

Silviculture workers (workers involved in reforestation) who are paid “primarily on a piece-rate basis” are excluded from some provisions of the Act dealing with split shifts, hours of work, and overtime. The Employment Standards Branch provides details

Farm workers

Farm workers are excluded from some sections of the Act, such as the statutory holiday entitlements. The Employment Standards Branch explains how the Act applies to farm workers.

Fin fish farm workers also have specific sections of the Act, involving work hours and overtime, that don’t apply. The branch provides details.

Commissioned salespeople

Workers paid on a commission or incentive basis are excluded from specific sections of the Act, including the overtime requirements. The branch provides details.

If you’re a manager

Managers are excluded from the parts of the Employment Standards Act that cover hours of work, overtime, and statutory holiday pay. They are otherwise covered (if none of the other exceptions apply).

A manager is defined as a person:

  • whose main duties are supervising or directing human or other resources, or
  • employed as an executive.

Key considerations in determining if someone is a manager are:

  • How much can they “materially and substantially” affect the employment conditions of those for whose work they are responsible?
  • What kind of responsibilities do they have with respect to company resources?

The title “manager” doesn’t legally make someone a manager. Nor does it matter if other workers refer to a person as a “manager.”

The Employment Standards Branch provides more detail on what goes into determining if someone is a manager.

If you’re not covered by employment standards legislation

Just because you’re not covered by the Employment Standards Act doesn’t mean you have no rights as a worker. Other laws apply to those who are excluded from the Act. For example, human rights laws protect all workers from discrimination. 

If you feel your rights have been violated at work, seeking legal advice can help. It’s a way to better understand which laws apply to you and what your options are to resolve your dispute. There are options for free or low-cost legal advice.

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