The Ultimate Guide: Employment Questions Answered (Layoffs, salary, EI and more)

Employment lawyer Daniel Lublin answers some frequently asked questions employees have about how coronavirus affects their jobs.


I don’t feel safe going into the workplace because of COVID-19. Can I stay home?

This depends on whether your presence at the workplace presents a reasonable likelihood that you will become infected with COVID-19.

You have the right to refuse to perform your job if it is likely to endanger you. Whether you face a clear and present danger depends on the circumstances and the type of work you perform. A work refusal is only justified when the situation remains unsafe. If you work in an office and an employee near to you is complaining of symptoms similar to COVID-19, you may be justified in leaving that airspace and, if there is no other alternative, staying home until that threat of a potential infection is removed. You do not have an unlimited right to simply stop working or return home whenever you feel like there could be a risk. It has to be a real risk.

Although you cannot be fired for exercising a COVID-19 work refusal due to a good-faith belief that you may become infected, if you stop working without that good faith and reasonable belief, your wages and job may be placed in jeopardy.

Whether your COVID-19 refusal to work is justifiable will depend on whether it is founded upon recommendations of public-health authorities or founded upon unreasonable fears. Stay informed by following municipal, provincial and federal health recommendations posted on official government websites.

The provincial government also recently announced job-protection legislation to protect the job security of employees away from work because of COVID-19. The precise scope of the legislation is not yet known.


I’m suffering from cold-like symptoms and I feel like I need to stay home at least for 14 days for self-isolation. My employer still wants me to work. Can I be forced to work?

If you do have COVID-19 and your presence at work infects other employees, then both you and your employer can potentially be sued. Both employees and employers have a responsibility to protect other coworkers and the general public.

Although each jurisdiction across Canada is addressing this slightly differently, you cannot be fired if you are sick and unable to work due to COVID-19, including even a presumption that you are sick with the illness, as many people with symptoms are still not receiving tests. Some Provinces have also created protected leaves of absence that define whether and when you have the right to assert a leave of absence due to COVID-19 or the possibility of it.

Speak with the local authorities, follow their guidance, and attempt to get tested. If you are indeed sick with COVID-19, then you must immediately notify your employer. You cannot be required to re-attend the workplace until you are no longer sick and do not pose a threat of spreading the illness to others.

Once you can be more certain that you do not actually have COVID-19, then you can be required to work.


My child’s school is closed. Does my employer have to give me time off so I can care for my child?

Some Provinces have created job-protected leaves of absence for employees who need to stay home and care for children due to school or day-care closures. In these Provinces, you must be provided with the time off, although it is unpaid, and your job must be reinstated upon the end of the leave.

Human-rights laws also require that employers accommodate your child-care needs. Employers must determine whether the nature of your role enables you to perform work from home and, if so, to provide you with remote work. Employers and employees must also work together to determine if there are other arrangements for child care that can be implemented or any other adjustments to your role, such as different hours of work so your spouse or other family member can care for your children while you work, which enables you to perform your regular duties.

If there are no other reasonable options available, then you are entitled to unpaid time off to stay home to watch your children. However, you would be eligible for employment insurance or the CERB. You also cannot be fired if you must stay home to care for your children owing to a school closing.


Can my employer force me to use my vacation time during a business closing?

This depends on the province you work in, but generally your employer can direct when you take your vacation time.


What types of questions can my employer ask me related to COVID-19?

Employers have to ensure that the workplace is safe for employees. They are entitled to ask a number of questions designed to determine if you pose a health and safety risk, such as:

  • Are you exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19?
  • Were you in close personal contact with anyone who has exhibited symptoms of COVID-19?
  • Were you in the same physical vicinity with anyone who is confirmed to have COVID-19 within the past several weeks?
  • Have you travelled to an affected area where there was a COVID-19 outbreak?
  • Were you in close personal contact with anyone who recently travelled to an area with a COVID-19 outbreak?

Arguably, this list could also include the question “have you travelled outside of Canada at all?”

You cannot be fired if you answer yes to any of these questions.

However, you can be told to immediately leave the workplace and not to return until such time as there is no risk that you will infect the other workers.

Note that you cannot be targeted by your employer and asked certain questions due to your race, place of origin or ethnicity. Human-rights legislation recognizes the importance of balancing people’s rights to non-discrimination with public health and safety, including the need to address evidence-based risks associated with COVID-19. Questions that are founded upon reasonable health and safety concerns consistent with the recommendations of public-health authorities will be permissible. Questions that are founded upon misguided fears and stereotypes may be inappropriate and amount to discrimination.


My employer wants me to sign a waiver/zero liability letter in the event I contract COVID-19 through continuing to work. Is this legal and what rights do I have if I refuse to sign this letter?

You cannot be forced to sign a waiver of legal rights, especially if you are being asked to work in any type of situation that is unsafe or potentially unsafe. You also have the right to refuse to work where it is likely to endanger your health and safety so you cannot be forced to continue to work in an unsafe environment even if you don’t agree to sign the waiver.

There is talk about some employers offering employees additional compensation or benefits to stay at work or to work additional hours or overtime. Subject to the government mandated work stoppages that are occurring in Canada right now, it is possible for employers and employees to agree on additional compensation or benefits for employees who are prepared to continue to work despite the health risks that may exist. But employees cannot be forced or threatened to make these types of deals and they should definitely not sign anything without having it first reviewed by a lawyer.


I am required to work remotely but I do not have a home office or appropriate equipment to do the job remotely. Is my employer required to provide me with these tools and what if they don’t?

Many businesses that are still operational are adapting to the new reality by allowing or encouraging remote work. For those employees given such a choice, it is important to understand that remote work arrangements are neither a right nor a privilege. It is a form of accommodation that employers are providing. To this end, if an employer offers, but does not require, employees the opportunity to work from home, those employees who accept that offer are responsible to have the tools and resources necessary to capably perform the job, such as computers, printers, internet connections and sufficient data plans.

Many newfound remote or teleworkers have recently asked me whether their companies are obligated to pay for some or all of their home internet or long distance phone bills. If those employees made the choice to work from home and their employers simply accommodated that decision, then there is no obligation to provide additional compensation to offset any additional costs. This is especially the case if the employees could still work from the office but elected not to.

For companies who dictate that employees perform their duties from home, then yes, they must facilitate those work arrangements by providing the proper tools, training and reimbursement of proper expenses. Failing to do so is foolish and should not be held against employees who are unable to complete the work.

I am also asked often whether an employer has to offer remote work to all employees uniformly. The answer is definitely no. Subject to discrimination laws, an employer may choose which staff are offered remote work and which are not.

I am presently on a temporary layoff and my employer is asking me to pay for a portion of my group health benefits package. Is this still my responsibility since I’m not at work?

Many companies share the costs of private health benefit insurance with employees. The portion of the benefits costs that you ordinarily paid still remains your responsibility even during a temporary layoff. If you want those benefits to continue, you can be asked to pay your share.

That said, I have seen many companies offer to pay for the employees’ portion of the benefits costs during a temporary layoff on compassionate or sympathetic grounds. Considering you were placed on an unpaid layoff, this is something you should explore.

I am unionized. How would my rights differ from non-union employees in any way related to COVID-19?

The rights of unionized employees are informed by collective bargaining agreements. Those collective agreements spell out the general terms and conditions for all union employees in the bargaining unit and operate similar to an employee handbook.

One main difference between union and non-union employees is that unionized employees cannot make individual court claims against their employers and instead they have to file a union grievance, which is a procedure set up for resolving disputes. Although unions have a duty of good faith to address and advance grievances by their membership, there are scenarios where they can refuse to take a grievance forward.

As it relates to COVID-19, unions are expected to advance any health and safety concerns on behalf of the employees. Further, collective agreements in Canada historically allow temporary layoffs, whereas for the majority of non-union employees, these layoffs amount to a deemed termination.

Half of my team was laid off and now the rest of us are required to pick up the slack. I have nearly twice as much work to do but my pay is the same. What options do I have?

If this is intended as a permanent change, then your employer has revised the terms of your employment without your permission. Changes to key elements of your duties or pay, including having to work far more for the same compensation cannot be imposed but must first be negotiated in exchange for something of value and then implemented with your consent. If neither occurs and your employer simply demands that you essentially perform two jobs for the price of one, then you can treat this as a constructive termination.

In this scenario, you can continue to work but you should only do so under protest. If anything, this will hopefully facilitate a discussion for additional compensation. Or if you were so inclined, you could depart and claim severance while looking for another job. Discuss this step with a lawyer first.

If we eventually find a vaccine for COVID-19, can my employer force me to get it?

Mandatory employee vaccination already occurs in some industries. For example, hospitals and the health care sector require employees and contractors to have up to date vaccinations for specific diseases. Employers in other industries can also create and enforce their own rules and regulations especially on the basis of workplace safety.

Assuming a safe COVID-19 vaccination is established and approved by Health Canada, employers can insist that all employees obtain the vaccination when it becomes available, so long as there are appropriate exemptions based on human rights requirements, such as a medical or religious basis to refuse a vaccination.

Second, our governments can create rules that we all have to follow for the greater good. For example, several provinces require proof of immunization for children to attend school. Therefore, if and when a safe vaccine is created, governments could potentially try to compel the vaccination of all citizens. This would be deeply controversial. However, if such a law were created, employers would have to comply with these orders and would have to take steps to ensure that all employees and contractors were vaccinated, subject exemptions for either medical or religious reasons.


Can my employer temporarily lay me off because of COVID-19?

Many employers are considering or implementing temporary layoffs as a response to a slowdown in business owing to COVID-19. Temporary layoffs of varying lengths are allowed under provincial legislation without it amounting to a termination, so long as you are recalled to work within a certain time period.

During a temporary layoff, you would be eligible to receive employment insurance, and, most of the time, your employee health benefits are continued.

Even though provincial legislation describes temporary layoff restrictions, the legislation does not create a complete right for an employer to implement a temporary layoff. Unless you have an employment agreement that explicitly permits a temporary layoff, then an employee can treat a temporary layoff as tantamount to an immediate termination of employment, giving rise to a claim for severance. But this approach could be risky in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak and given the current economic situation. The COVID-19 outbreak is unprecedented, and the law may imply an employer has the right to implement a temporary layoff as a health and safety measure or because of work shortages that arise in these unique circumstances.


If my employer shuts down because of COVID-19, am I entitled to severance?

Yes. As long as your employer does not declare bankruptcy, then the closing represents a termination of your employment and you would be entitled to claim a severance package if one was not presented to you.

Severance must be calculated with reference to employment-standards legislation, your employment contract, your age, your tenure, your position and precedents. There is a debate right now about whether employers or employees will be afforded more protection by the courts in disputes about severance pay. During the 2008 financial crisis, there were several judges who felt that employees should receive longer than normal severance packages owing to the difficulty they faced in finding other comparable work.


I signed a severance package when I was let go. Now the company is saying that they will not be able to pay the rest of my severance moving forward. Can they do this?

Your severance agreement is a contract. If your ex-employer does not comply with it, especially by refusing to pay the money you are owed, it has violated that contract. Once that contract is violated, you have two options. You can take legal action to compel your ex-employer to comply with the contract and to pay your legal costs to enforce that deal. Or you can put aside the severance contract and take legal action to recover whatever damages you originally suffered.

Unfortunately, I am hearing stories about many companies who are delaying debts or stopping payments owed to ex-employees on the basis that they need to preserve the money. This is really no excuse. Of course, if a company goes out of business then everyone loses. However, up to that point, individuals should insist that companies adhere to the agreements they previously made. The sooner you assert your rights in this scenario, the better.


Does my employer have to provide me with my job back after a temporary layoff ends? Will my tenure continue upon a recall?

Your employer does not need to recall you but you have rights if you are not recalled.

As stated in an earlier posting, a temporary layoff can be illegal from the outset. However, if you do not pursue a legal claim due to the layoff and your employer does not recall you to work within the maximum time frame permitted under the provincial or federal employment statute that applies to you, then your employment is clearly terminated as of that point and you are entitled to severance.

Furthermore, many employees will not necessarily be offered their exact roles back if they are recalled to work. If the role that is presented following a layoff is drastically different and inferior, employees may also be able to treat that as a termination and claim severance, even though there was a recall notice.

If you are recalled to work following a layoff, your employment tenure must be treated as continuous.


I was laid off and my employer has not provided me with a Record of Employment, which I need in order to claim EI. What can I do about this?

Unfortunately, too many companies fumble their obligation to provide a Record of Employment (ROE) in a timely fashion or at all, causing unnecessary delays in applications for Employment Insurance or other benefits. Companies who fail or refuse to provide an ROE can be fined up to $2,000 or the Directors imprisoned for up to 6 months, or both. A court can also award damages against companies who do not issue ROEs in a timely fashion, especially where it was deliberate. In one recent case, an employee was awarded $1,000 for the inconvenience of having to wait almost 5 months for her former employer to issue her ROE.

An ROE is due when income from employment stops or is expected to stop for 7 days or more. If you do not receive the ROE quickly, you should still file your application for Employment Insurance and you or a legal representative should demand the ROE from your employer or ex-employer. Do so in writing so there is a record of it.

What happens if the ROE is not accurately completed? This can occur when there is a dispute about why an employee left his or her job. Employees who voluntarily resign or who are terminated for serious misconduct may be disqualified from Employment Insurance benefits.

It is an offence for an employer to file an ROE incorrectly. Whoever signs the form must certify that the information prepared is accurate. If an employee disagrees with an employer’s view of the events, he or she can protest it in the application for benefits and a Service Canada officer will conduct an investigation and make a decision as to which version of the events was most likely.

I was laid off yet I am still being asked to perform work-related duties, with no compensation offered. Is this legal?

COVID-19 has not created a general reorganization of workplace rights and employees cannot be forced to work for free!

Some employees agree to perform some very limited duties during a layoff. Mostly, this is to assist others to find information or to answer several questions. However, this is their personal choice. If your employer needs you to work, it should recall you and pay you for your time or otherwise offer to compensate you one way or another for the work that you perform.

Moreover, it would be a wrongful dismissal if you were terminated for declining to work without payment during a layoff and you cannot be disciplined for refusing or ignoring work requests that you are not compensated to perform.


Can you collect both EI and the Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)?

You will only receive one benefit, not both, for the same time period. According to recent updates on the Government’s CERB page, if you stopped working because of COVID-19, you should apply for the CERB, whether or not you are eligible for Employment Insurance. As well, if you became eligible for EI regular or sickness benefits on March 15, 2020 or later, your claim will be automatically processed through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.


If I choose to stay home due to COVID-19, am I eligible for EI or CERB?

Voluntary decisions to leave work and self-isolate disqualify you from EI or the CERB. This is where the Government has presently drawn its line. Workers cannot lay claim to these benefits unless they were compelled to stop working due to COVID-19. Individuals who elect to stay home based on a more general concern over the health and welfare of others would not receive Government assistance.

There are exceptions. If the workplace is unsafe, then you should make a health and safety complaint and you may have the right to refuse to work and withdraw from the workplace, especially if the employer is not taking the correct steps to ensure your safety. In these circumstances, you should qualify for the CERB.

However, if your employer is taking the necessary steps to ensure the workplace is safe to perform your job, then should you choose to leave work and stay home, your absence would be unpaid and you would not qualify for Government support.

Human rights laws also require that employers accommodate employees who have a medical condition or who must provide direct care to a parent, child or spouse who has a medical condition that places them in a higher risk category of contracting COVID-19. In these circumstances, an employer must attempt to find a solution that would allow these employees to continue to work but socially distance as much as possible. If an employer fails to accommodate an employee who legitimately requires it in these circumstances then that employee’s decision to stay home should not disqualify him or her from Government support benefits. This would be in addition to human rights damages that would arise through a legal claim against an employer who was capable of accommodation but declined it.


Can I apply for Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits if I self-quarantine without any symptoms?

Employment Insurance sickness benefits are available to employees who are unable to work because of “illness, injury, or quarantine.” Even if you are not yourself sick or injured, you may qualify for sickness benefits if you are quarantined as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

A medical certificate is usually required for sickness benefits, but the federal government has waived this requirement for COVID-19 related claims.

For the purposes of a sickness benefits claim, a “quarantine” may be proven to Service Canada by providing a declaration that the quarantine was “imposed on the claimant by a public-health official for the health and safety of the public at large” or “recommended by such an official for the health and safety of the public at large and the claimant was asked by their employer, a medical doctor, a nurse or another similar person in authority to place themselves under quarantine.”

Someone who has recently returned from travel abroad would qualify under this definition of “quarantine” in light of the current self-isolation recommendations from public-health authorities. Similarly, someone who cannot work because of restrictions against gatherings of 50 or more people could fit the definition of “quarantine.”

But there remains some doubt as to whether an entirely asymptomatic person, who has not recently travelled, and who hasn’t been sent home by their employer can qualify for sickness benefits. If the voluntary self-isolation is purely fear-based without any connection to prevailing public-health recommendations, such an employee may not qualify for EI sickness benefits while away from work.


I have not worked enough hours to qualify for EI. Has there been any change in eligibility to cover me?

The Federal Government has not yet announced any change to the basic eligibility rules for regular employment insurance. Employment insurance is available in a number of different circumstances, including if you are laid off, terminated or sick. But workers generally must have first worked at least 600 insurable hours during the 52 weeks prior to the claim for insurance. You should review the Federal Government’s employment insurance website.

Even if you do not qualify for regular benefits under the regular rules, there is another option for you to obtain benefits. The Federal Government just announced the new Canada Emergency Response BenefitIt is available to workers, including self-employed workers, affected by the COVID-19 outbreak who do not otherwise qualify for employment insurance benefits.


I signed a new job contract but was laid off before I had worked any hours or before I started. What are my options?

You should have received a Record of Employment indicating that you were laid off due to a shortage of work. If you worked enough qualified hours prior to the layoff, also taking into account any prior employment you held during the last year, then you should still be able to qualify for regular EI benefits.

If you don’t qualify for EI benefits, you may qualify for the CERB which the federal government announced it is making available to employees affected by the COVID-19 outbreak but who don’t otherwise qualify for EI. The program is essentially a catch-all for workers who are affected by COVID-19 and unable to work or who are no longer receiving an income.

To be eligible, you must have stopped working due to COVID-19 and had employment and/or self-employment income of at least $5000 in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to the date of your application. If you are a student, you may be eligible for the Emergency Student Benefit, which is meant to provide support to students and new graduates who are not eligible for the CERB.

Finally, there may be legal remedies available against the company, depending on the language of the contract you signed. Even if a contract is broken before employment begins, you may be able to claim damages for some lost income while you search for another comparable job.


I am a temporary foreign worker on a study or work visa. Am I eligible for any benefits?

Temporary foreign workers are entitled to claim EI Benefits. EI Benefits are payable to eligible workers for all days in a benefits period where they are “capable of and available for work.” If a work permit expires, EI payments may stop because the worker is no longer capable or available for work.

The CERB is available to workers residing in Canada who are at least 15 years old and who have stopped working because of COVID-19 related reasons. You need a SIN number to apply so if you have a SIN number and fit the remaining eligibility criteria, you should be eligible for the CERB.


Do self-employed individuals or contractors qualify for any financial protection if they are laid off, become sick or are in self-isolation

Absolutely. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit is designed to provide up to $2,000 per month for up to 4 months of income replacement for workers, including self-employed workers and contractors, who face unemployment due to COVID-19, including those who are sick, quarantined, or in directed self-isolation. To be eligible, they must have had income of at least $5,000 in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to the date of application, which includes income paid by way of non-eligible dividends.

Just like employees, contractors in voluntary self-isolation would not be eligible for these benefits.


I am a business owner. My business has come to a standstill and I have no income coming in. What relief am I entitled to?

You will apply for the newly announced Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). This benefit will provide you with a subsidy of 75 per cent of employee salaries up to $847 per employee, per week, for a period of 3 months. To qualify, your revenue must decline by at least 15 per cent from March 15, 2020 to April 11, 2020, and by at least 30 per cent in the following two months, when compared to a baseline revenue. If you own a corporation and are on the payroll, your earnings also qualify for the wage subsidy, assuming that the other preconditions are met.

To qualify for the CEWS you will need to recall your employees back to work. Employees who receive EI or CERB for a period where they are recalled to work will likely be asked to repay these benefits back to the government although the government has not provided specific details on this issue.

You are also expected, if possible, to top up the difference in pay between the CEWS and your employees’ normal wages.


My maternity leave is ending and my employer has just announced layoffs. Will I be able to extend my EI claim?

You likely will not qualify for another EI claim as you need to have a certain amount of eligible hours before making a new claim. However, if you are unable to return to work due to a layoff, I believe you would qualify for the newly announced Canada Emergency Response Benefit which provides income support payments to workers who suffer a loss of income for reasons related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

I am eligible for EI but the amount I can receive is very low. Can I switch over to the Emergency Response Benefit?

If you applied for EI benefits on or after March 15, 2020, your application will automatically be switched over to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). If you already received EI benefits prior to March 15, 2020, then your entitlement continues under that program. You will not qualify for the CERB for so long as you are receiving EI benefits. If your existing EI benefit period ends before October 3, 2020 and you continue to be out of work because of COVID-related reasons, then you can apply for the CERB at that time.

I work multiple jobs. Am I eligible for benefits if I lose one job but not others?

For EI regular benefits, you must first have no income for at least 7 consecutive days to become eligible, although if you earn other income while on EI, there is a deduction that is applied.

For the CERB, you will need to confirm that you have nor earned more than $1000 in employment and/or self-employment income in a period of at least 14 consecutive days within the first benefit period, and for the entire four-week benefit period of any subsequent claim.

I am going to be laid off. My company says I need to use up my vacation time and then apply for EI. Do they have the right to force me to use my vacation time before I can apply for EI?

The rules surrounding vacation rights depend on which province or industry you work in. However, most provincial employment standards statutes allow an employer to dictate when an employee takes his or her vacation and this allows employers to insist that employees use their vacation time prior to initiating a layoff.

I remain employed but my employer has reduced my hours and salary by 50 per cent due to the impact of Covid-19 on the business. Am I eligible to claim EI and/or the CERB benefit?

You do not meet the criteria for EI regular benefits, as you must have lost your job or been laid off. To qualify for the CERB, you cannot have earned more than $1000 in employment and/or self-employment income in a period of at least 14 consecutive days within the first benefit period, and for the entire four-week benefit period of any subsequent claim.

Your employer’s ability to reduce your hours and salary by 50 per cent is a different story. Although many employees are agreeing to vast wage reductions because having a job, even if earning far less money, is better than unemployment, an employer still generally does not have the right to impose a large wage cut and doing so could be treated as a constructive dismissal.

I lost my job due to COVID-19 and I was offered severance. Will the severance affect my eligibility to claim employment insurance or the CERB?

Employment insurance is not payable until the period of time covered by the severance pay elapses and only if you still remain unemployed. You should apply for EI benefits within four weeks following your dismissal. If you wait longer, you could lose your EI benefits.

To qualify for the CERB, you must first cease working due to COVID-19 and then be without income for 14 consecutive days. Although the Government has not yet clarified whether a severance payment would be considered income, I assume that it will. Severance payments are normally treated as income and the intention of the CERB is to provide compensation to individuals who do not have other sources of money.

Keep in mind that workers can collect the CERB and earn up to $1,000 per month. If your severance is less than this amount, presumably you would be able to claim the CERB at the same time.


I was temporarily laid off and I’m collecting EI. My employer is recalling me back to work but only at 50 per cent of my regular pay. Am I obligated to return and what if I say no?

As the Federal Government rolls out wage subsidies, many employees will suddenly be recalled back to work. But not all companies will be able to provide employees with their regular hours of work or pay.

Employees are not required to resume employment where the circumstances are unreasonable. In 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada decided the Evans case, which concerned an employee who was terminated but then offered an opportunity to come back to work. In that case, the Court ruled that employees have an obligation to return to their jobs where the conditions and the pay are the same or reasonably similar. The Court clarified that if the salary is less or if the working conditions are demeaning or hostile, employees could justify refusing to return and instead claiming damages while looking for other work.

This same analysis applies to situations where employees are offered the opportunity to resume employment following a temporary layoff. Therefore, these employees must be recalled to perform their own jobs and duties, or at least, largely comparable roles. Recall notices cannot be used to force employees to perform more menial tasks that happen to be available.

While the wages offered must be the same or similar, employees have an obligation to act reasonably. Previously, judges were sympathetic to employees who were faced with pay cuts of more than around 10% of their pay, often finding that these individuals were within their rights to reject the reemployment offer. However, I expect this may change as employers will undoubtedly be given more lenience to cut costs in order to survive and employees who refuse available work, even if not entirely comparable, will be held to a higher standard.

What about employees who, for one reason or another, choose not to return to their jobs if recalled? Is there still a severance payment?

If an employee on a layoff is offered his or her same job and pay back within the timeframe permitted by provincial and federal legislation and simply elects not to return, then no termination or severance pay is required. However, these employees would still be eligible to claim lost income for the period of the layoff up to the date of the recall notice.

My company is recalling us back to work on the basis they expect to receive the federal wage subsidy. However, they wish to either claw back or withhold bonuses and commissions to make up the difference between the wage subsidy and our regular pay. Is this legal and what are the rules around withholding past amounts due to me?

Under the wage subsidy program, employers are expected to make their best effort to top-up employees’ salaries to bring them to pre-crisis levels. Although so far this is an expectation and not a law, employers can be penalized for conduct intended to game the system.

Here, you are being asked to subsidize the difference between the wage subsidy and your regular pay, such that the government is effectively paying your entire salary and your employer is paying nothing. This appears to be precisely the type of behavior that the Government has discouraged.

Employers who abuse the wage subsidy system will have repay the wage subsidy it received and if the employer’s actions are deemed as fraudulent, it could be penalized with fines or even imprisonment

If you do choose to still work at this company, you should make them aware that you do not agree with their proposal and that you reserve your legal rights should you later wish to make any type of claim.

Further, there are rules around the withholding of previously earned amounts, whether it be bonuses or commissions. If those payments were already earned by you but not yet paid out, then an employer cannot withhold them without your agreement. This is particularly the case if the amounts are truly non-discretionary wages and are tied to productivity, rather than complete discretion.

For many employees, bonuses and commissions represents a large component of their overall pay. Much like with the changes to any other element of employee compensation, a sudden and permanent change to the terms of your bonus or commission plan, assuming the change is significant, can be viewed as an attempt to re-write the terms of your compensation. This should only be done with your agreement.

After I was laid off, I applied for and expect to receive the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. My employer has recalled me back to work but by returning, I will actually earn less money than the CERB. Can I refuse the recall since I get more by remaining off work?

No. As above, if your employer is offering you your own position back and assuming the wages are the same or similar, then you cannot refuse that offer and stay home to collect a paycheque from the Government, even if the monthly amount works out to more. The CERB is not intended to provide Canadians with more income than the amount they earned in the first place.

As well, the CERB is only available to workers who have lost their job because of COVID. If your job is in fact available to you again, you are no longer eligible for the CERB. You would be required to repay any CERB payments you receive during a period in which you are not eligible.

My employer has several offices. I was initially laid off but in light of the wage subsidy program, I am being recalled, except to a different location than were I previously worked. The problem is that I will have to commute much farther than before. What can be done?

If the commute is objectively more burdensome, then there may be good cause to reject it and treat the reemployment offer as invalid. Relevant considerations include whether you have a vehicle to commute, how much longer it will take, whether you have childcare or other responsibilities that may be impacted, whether you have previously agreed to work at different locations, whether your employment agreement permits a locational transfer and whether the company has offered to compensate you for any additional expenses you would incur due to the commute.

Aside from a longer commute time, many people are asking whether having to take public transit would presently justify a right to stay home. This reason, by itself, would not be sufficient. Generally, the method by which you travel to work is not your employer’s concern and as long as public transit is operating, it is not deemed to be inherently unsafe.

I was temporarily laid off very early on in the crisis and I have lost pay for the period of time I was away from work. I received a recall notice but if I return to work, am I still eligible to pursue those lost wages?

Putting aside the legality of the layoff itself, returning to work does not stop you from claiming lost wages for your period of layoff, unless you made an agreement to the contrary.

One exception will be where a business was ordered to stop operating during the lockdown. These companies cannot be sued by the employees who were unable to work during that period.

Keep in mind that if you received some government support during the layoff, such as Employment Insurance or the CERB, you may be required to repay that to the government if you later become entitled to your lost wages through a legal claim or otherwise.


I work at a hospital and due to a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), I’m unable to wear gloves or a face mask when I am around sick people. My manager said if I refuse to work, I will be treated as if I resigned. What are my rights?

The answer depends on the specific duties your job requires you to perform and whether dealing with an infectious disease is normally inherent in your job.

Unlike other employees, hospital and health care workers have more limited rights to refuse work that may be unsafe. However, they still must be provided with the proper protective equipment for the specific tasks being performed, where such equipment exists. For example, workers who are directly treating COVID-19 patients would require the PPE to perform the job, while workers who are not in close physical contact with those patients may not be able to refuse to work without PPE.


I was scheduled to begin a new job but the start date has now been pushed back indefinitely. What can I do?

Your start date is a key term of your employment. An employer who changes your start date, without your consent, is violating that term of your employment.

It can be very difficult to compel the company to maintain your original start date. Therefore, you could agree to the change or condone it by not protesting. You could also register a protest and assuming you eventually start the job, you can still pursue a claim at a later date for any damages you incurred (i.e. lost wages and benefits). Finally, you could treat the delay as an immediate termination and take legal action to recover your damages, especially if you left your last job to take this one. Realistically, you should consider whether you want to burn bridges with your new employer right now through legal action, especially if it is a relatively short postponement.

If you were terminated by your last employer, and you otherwise qualify for employment insurance, then you would make such a claim for regular benefits until the new job starts. However, if you resigned from your last position, you are unlikely to qualify for employment insurance benefits to cover the gap between the job you left and the job you planned to start. You may however be eligible for the CERB.


I was forced to quit due to unsafe working conditions. I was assigned a task that required me to work in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Do I have a case even though I quit?

The fact that you resigned is far less important than whether you had a good and justifiable reason to resign. The law recognizes that a true resignation is voluntary and not forced due to circumstances outside of your control. This is especially so if your employer failed to provide you with a safe working environment or to provide for appropriate protective measures in the circumstances. You could assert that your resignation was involuntary and make a claim for severance pay, or if you asserted a work refusal and you were then forced to quit, you may have remedies under provincial or federal occupational health and safety legislation.


What is “frustration of contract” and can that be used to end my employment without severance or termination pay?

This will be an issue that eventually plays out in courtrooms across the country.

The legal doctrine of frustration of contract arises when there is an unanticipated situation and, through no fault of either party, your employment relationship becomes impossible to continue. In this case, it is not considered a termination or a resignation.

When an employment relationship is frustrated, you and your employer are essentially released of the remaining obligations owed to each other. If that occurs, employers are excused from having to provide the typical termination or severance pay they would otherwise owe to employees for terminating their employment.

It is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic could be treated by courts as the type of unanticipated event that would amount to a frustrated employment relationship but those courts will have to strike a delicate balance between the competing interests of employers and employees. This will ultimately depend on factors such as:

a. the length of the pandemic;

b. whether the employer ceased business entirely or kept operating at a reduced scale;

c. whether other employees in your same position at the company did not lose their jobs;

d. the impact of a finding of frustration of employment on both the employer and the employee; and

e. whether your employment could have continued with additional considerations or whether it was truly and completely impossible to continue at all.

Frustration of contract is a last resort and is typically reserved for the most extraordinary circumstances. COVID-19 may meet that definition but it is much too early to tell and cannot be generalized for everyone. Specific circumstances for each situation must be considered.

My long-term disability is ending soon, but my employer can’t provide me with my position back at this time. Must my employer compensate me?

Even if there is a legitimate slowdown of work, this does not liberate the company from its normal employment law obligations. Once you are capable of returning to work and performing your job following a medical leave of absence, then your employer has a duty to reinstate you. If the company delays, avoids or is otherwise unwilling to allow you to resume your employment, then it amounts to a wrongful termination. In addition, you could claim damages for discrimination if there is evidence that your employer’s decision was, in any way, motivated by your illness or disability.

What happens if all or most of the other employees were laid off? You obviously cannot expect to return to a job that does not presently exist. However, even in this situation you generally cannot be forced to accept a layoff without pay and you could treat it as a termination and still claim severance.

The answer is different for those companies subject to a provincial or federal cease work order. They cannot be successfully sued by employees who are unable to work during the period of mandatory shutdown. However, once that mandatory shutdown ends, if the employees are not recalled or allowed to work, it too becomes a wrongful dismissal.