The ongoing and mounting effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic on workers across the country have moved both federal and provincial governments to take steps to introduce legislation and other government programs aimed at protecting—and providing financial stability to—Canadian workers. Here is a summary of the initiatives that have been introduced to date.

What you need to know

  • Provincial governments, including Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, have amended their employment standards legislation to address the impacts of COVID-19 on employees. The amendments aim to protect the jobs of workers who self-quarantine or are required to take time away from work to care for a child or other individual affected by COVID-19.
  • We anticipate the other provinces will introduce similar legislation in the coming days.
  • The federal government has also introduced several new initiatives and programs directed to provide financial stability to workers impacted by COVID-19.

Legislated protection of employee leaves of absence

Ontario passed the Employment Standards Amendment Act (Infectious Disease Emergencies), 2020, on March 19, 2020. The Act amends the Ontario Employment Standards Act, 2000 (the ESA) to address when emergency job-protected leave is available to employees in the case of infectious disease emergencies, like COVID-19. The amendments entitle employees to an unpaid leave of absence related to a designated infectious disease in certain circumstances, including if an employee is: affected by travel restrictions; required to care for a family member; under medical investigation, quarantine or isolation; or directed to stay home by their employer due to risk of exposing others in the workplace to a designated infectious disease. No sick note is required. These amendments are retroactive to January 25, 2020 (the date of the first presumptive case of COVID-19 in Ontario).

Saskatchewan and Alberta have passed similar legislation. The Saskatchewan Employment (Public Health Emergencies) Amendment Act, 2020, which is retroactive to March 6, 2020, provides job-protected leaves of absence to employees for any period of self-isolation required to prevent or reduce the spread of a disease, like COVID-19, or during which the employee is required to provide care and support to the employee’s child family member. No doctor’s note is required to take this leave of absence. Alberta’s Employment Standards (COVID-19 Leave) Regulation, which is retroactive to March 5, 2020, provides job protected leaves of absence to employees who are required to self-isolate as a result of COVID-19 or are caring for a child or dependent adult that is required to self-isolate, without the requirement to provide a medical note.

It is expected that other provinces will pass similar legislation shortly. Employers should seek jurisdiction-specific legal advice on their obligations as a result of these new amendments.

Income support for Canadian workers

The Canadian government has also announced a new set of economic measures to provide income support to Canadian workers impacted by COVID-19. Among other things, the government has:

  • waived the one-week waiting period to make an Employment Insurance (EI) sickness benefit claim;
  • waived the requirement to provide a medical certificate to access EI sickness benefits;
  • introduced the Emergency Care Benefit, which provides up to $900 bi-weekly for up to 16 weeks. This benefit will be available, beginning in April, to:
    • workers who are quarantined or sick with COVID-19 but do not qualify for EI sickness benefits;
    • workers who are taking care of a family member who is sick with COVID-19 but do not qualify for EI sickness benefits; and
    • parents with children who require care or supervision due to school or daycare closures, and are unable to earn employment income, irrespective of whether they qualify for EI or not;
  • introduced an Emergency Support Benefit to provide up to $5 billion in support to workers who are not eligible for EI and are facing unemployment; and
  • implemented an EI Work Sharing Program, which provides EI benefits to workers who agree to reduce their normal working hour as a result of developments beyond the control of their employers, by extending the eligibility of such agreements to 76 weeks, easing eligibility requirements and streamlining the application process.

In addition, employers who wish to offer financial assistance to those of its employees facing financial hardship may establish a “disaster relief program”. Employer contributions to a disaster relief program are non-deductible for the employer and amounts received by employees are non-taxable, provided that certain conditions are met.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.