Apr 7, 2020

COVID-19: What a Difference A Month Makes

In over 30 years I have never seen one topic dominate my employment law practice like COVID-19 has over the last three weeks.

Some Ontario businesses have gone from working at 100% capacity to 0% because the Ontario government has declared these businesses as non-essential and working remotely is not possible. 

Other businesses have slowed down but can continue to operate because work from home is possible for some employees.

The main question I am getting relates to temporary layoffs while the province is essentially locked down. 

Many employers thought the initial lock down would be for two weeks and thereafter the province would slowly re-open and therefore delayed making staffing decisions. The premier has asked Ontarians to stay at home if at all possible until at least the end of April so more and more employers can no longer avoid making tough staffing decisions.

Options to Consider when Your Staffing Needs Change Because of COVID–19

Depending on (i) whether the province has designated your business essential (ii) whether there is demand for your produce and service and (iii) whether some or all of your workers can work at home you have a number of options.

Government Programs

(i) Your Business Maintains Employment

75% Wage Subsidy 

If you can continue to operate and some of your employees can work either at your premises (ie an essential service) or remotely (ie non-essential business) you may be eligible for a 75% wage subsidy up to $847 per week if your year over year revenues are down at least 30% as a result of COVID-19.

Legislation is being tabled this week. Here is a link to information on this program: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/economic-response-plan/wage-subsidy.html

10% Wage Subsidy

If you don’t qualify for the 75% wage subsidy then you may be eligible for a 10% wage subsidy. Here is a link to a program on this wage subsidy: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/economic-response-plan.html 

Work Sharing

If employees agree, you can reduce hours and pay the employee based on prorated hours and the employee can collect EI for the balance of the week. Here is a link to information on job sharing program: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/corporate/notices/coronavirus.html#h4.04

Canada Emergency Business Account 

This account will provide an interest-fee loan of up to $40,000 for small businesses and not-for-profits. This funding is designed to help cover operating costs for qualifying businesses. In addition, repayment of this loan by December 31, 2022 will result in forgiveness of 25% of the loan up to a cap of $10,000. This program is expected to roll out in mid-April and businesses are being asked to work directly with their financial institution for more information.

(ii) Your Organization Lays Off Employees

Employment Insurance benefits 

If there is an interruption in earnings an employer must issue a Record of Employment or ROE. Laid off employees are entitled to EI benefits of up to 55% of their salary based on their  insurable earnings. The maximum insurable earnings is $54,000 so the maximum EI benefit is $573 per week.

Supplemental Unemployment benefits 

This program allows your organization to top up EI benefits to 95% of the employee’s salary. Here is a link to information on this program: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/ei/ei-list/ei-employers-supplemental-unemployment-benefit.html

Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (“CERB”)

This new program allows workers (and others) to apply for a $2000 a month benefit. This benefit provides income protection for people who don’t qualify for EI and can provide a greater benefit than EI benefits for some workers.  Here is a link to information on this program: https://www.canada.ca/en/services/benefits/ei/cerb-application.html

Legal issues

The three most common employment questions I am currently being asked are as follows:

  1. What is our legal exposure if we temporarily lay off an employee?
  2. Are we required to accommodate an employee’s request to stay at home with their kids and not attend work because of COVID-19 ?
  3. What happens if an employee refuses to report to work because they are concerned about their health or the health of family members because of COVID-19?

Unfortunately there is not a one size fits all answer. 

You should know, however, that before denying a leave of absence there is a new amendment to the Employment Standards Act that may apply.

In particular, there has been an amendment to section 50.1 of the Employment Standards Act which gives employees job protection because of a COVID-19 related illness and this new law is retroactive to January 25, 2020. In particular, prescribed infectious diseases now include diseases caused by a novel coronavirus, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

 

For over 30 years, Doug MacLeod of the MacLeod Law Firm has been advising employers on all aspects of the employment relationship. If you have any questions, you can contact him at 416-317-9894 or at [email protected]

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