Your questions about coronavirus and work

After being laid off when the pandemic first hit, I’m happy to be getting a full pay cheque again. But it still doesn’t feel like my workplace is safe. Is there anything I can do if I feel uncomfortable?"

– Joseph, Victoria, BC

Can I take time off work to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes. The BC Employment Standards Act has been changed to allow part- and full-time employees to take up to three hours of paid time off work to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. You can take additional paid leave for a second dose. Employees are entitled to this leave no matter how long they’ve been employed.

Can I refuse to work during the pandemic?

This is becoming less and less prevalent as we move closer to step 4 of BC’s restart plan. 

But 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.

More generally, workers have the right to refuse work if they believe it presents an undue hazardWorkSafeBC 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?

Starting July 1, employers no longer need a COVID-19 safety plan. They just need a communicable disease plan, which doesn’t need to be posted in writing. WorkSafeBC explains what a communicable disease plan entails.

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 layoff.

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 continues to be a trying time for many 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 ($300 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 42 weeks (and a reduced amount for another 12 more 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). This benefit ended on October 23, 2021. However, if you were eligible for a past period, you can apply until December 22, 2021. After that, applications will be closed for good.

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?

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 contractThe 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.

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.

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

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the BC government has established three new types of leave for those who are unable to work due to illness. An employee can take up to three days of unpaid leave each year if they can't work due to personal illness or injury. You must have been in the job for at least 90 days to qualify for this leave.

There’s also now a paid sick leave due to COVID-19 reasons. You’re entitled to three days of paid sick leave if you’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 if you’re in isolation or quarantine, or your employer has asked you not to work due to concern about your exposure to others. If you qualify, your employer must pay you at least an average day’s pay for each day of leave you take. 

In addition to the three days of paid leave, you’re entitled to an indefinite unpaid leave for any of the COVID-19 reasons noted above. You can take this leave for as long as you need it, without putting your job at risk. This leave is also available for other coronavirus-related reasons, such as if you’re unable to return to work due to travel restrictions. The Employment Standards Branch explains each of these types of leave.

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?

In May 2021, the BC government introduced a new type of paid sick leave for those unable to work for COVID-19 reasons. Workers who qualify are entitled to three days of paid leave between May 20, 2021 and December 31, 2021. Your employer must pay you at least an average day's pay for each day of leave you take.

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.

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.

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 was new in 2020). 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.

In addition, there are two main types of leave for COVID-19 reasons. You’re entitled to three days of paid sick leave if you’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 or under orders to self-isolate. As well, you can take an indefinite unpaid leave for those and additional coronavirus-related reasons. 

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 youBut 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.

  • Reviewed in October 2021
  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Time to read: 10 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

People's team, People's Law School

People's team

Was this helpful?

Also on this topic

Need to know

Farm workers: Your rights at work

Work it out

Your employer's duty to accommodate

Work it out

Your privacy rights at work

Work it out

If your employer asks you to do something concerning

Work it out

If you're discriminated against at work

Webinar

Your Rights as a Worker in the Time of Coronavirus

Webinar

Returning to Work During the Pandemic

Still not sure what to do?

If you're looking for advice specific to your situation, there are options for free or low-cost help.

Options for legal help