“After being laid off when the pandemic first hit, I’m happy to be getting a full pay cheque again. But my boss hasn’t been taking COVID-19 very seriously. It doesn’t feel like my workplace is safe. What can I do?"
– Joseph, Victoria, BC
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, have been told to isolate by public health authorities, or have arrived from outside of Canada in the last 14 days. WorkSafeBC outlines situations where workers should 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.
Does a workplace need to have a COVID-19 safety plan?
Yes, 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.
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?
Due to the pandemic, the federal government has expanded the employment insurance program to help more workers. The requirements have been relaxed, so you need fewer hours to qualify. As well, those who qualify are entitled to a higher minimum rate of benefits ($500 per week for regular EI benefits). The federal government’s website explains the changes.
Early in the pandemic, the federal government also introduced the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) to help workers affected by the crisis. The government phased out that benefit in September 2020 and replaced it with a package of “recovery benefits.” The Canada recovery benefit is a $1,000 payment every two weeks, for up to 26 weeks. It’s available to those whose work has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and who aren’t eligible for EI (for example, self-employed workers).
There are other recovery benefits available to those who are sick or in self-isolation, and those who can’t work because they’re caring for someone affected by the pandemic. Visit the federal government’s website for more on the recovery benefits.
As well, check out our updated guidance on figuring out which benefits you’re eligible for.
I was told my layoff was just temporary. Is that allowed?
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. If your employer isn’t ready to recall you back to work after 13 weeks of layoff, they have two options. They can apply to extend the temporary layoff, or they can pay you severance. In applying for an extension, the employer must show that at least half of affected employees support the application. The Employment Standards Branch has details of the process.
While you’re laid off, you can apply for federal benefits. You may be eligible for employment insurance, a government program to help people who are out of work. The EI program has been temporarily expanded to cover more workers who’ve been affected by the pandemic.
If you aren’t eligible for EI, you may qualify for the Canada recovery benefit. This is a $1,000 payment every two weeks, for up to 26 weeks. We explain these benefits, and help you decide which one's right for you.
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.) Here's the full list of requirements.
Or, if you aren’t eligible for EI, you can apply for the Canada recovery benefit. This benefit provides $1,000 every two weeks, for up to 26 weeks. It’s available to workers who see a 50% reduction in earnings compared to the previous year due to the pandemic. Visit the federal government's website for details.
I’m feeling ill. Can I take time off work and keep my job?
On March 23, 2020 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.
As well, our laws prevent discrimination against workers if they have a disability. BC’s human rights commissioner views COVID-19 as a disability (saying it is more akin to HIV than to the common cold). So this means if you have COVID-19, 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.
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. Here's the full list of requirements.
If you aren’t eligible for EI, you can apply for the Canada recovery sickness benefit. It’s available to those who can’t work because they’re sick or self-isolating due to the pandemic and who aren’t eligible for EI. The federal government's website explains this benefit.
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.
If you aren’t eligible for EI, you can apply for the Canada recovery sickness benefit. It provides $500 per week, for up to two weeks. It’s available to those who aren’t able to work because they’re sick or self-isolating due to the pandemic, and who don’t qualify for EI. Here’s the full list of requirements.
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 extra money for each child you have.
Plus, the Canada recovery caregiving benefit is available to working parents who must stay home to care for kids that are sick or need additional care because of school and daycare closures. This benefit provides $500 per week, for up to 26 weeks. For the details, visit the federal government’s website.
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, 2020 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 one of these personal characteristics, 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 (and 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.