Navigating the Return to Work During Covid-19 in Alberta

 In Employment Law, General

Returning to work during COVID-19 in Alberta: Does an employee have to report to work?

Most people I talk to watch the news daily to see when businesses are opening up. Meanwhile, many people have been at home for two months either because they received a temporary layoff notice, or because their company has required them to work from home. So what happens if you receive a recall notice – do you have to return to work? The answer: it’s complicated

You’re entitled to a safe workspace

Employees are entitled to work in a safe environment, and Alberta law protects this right under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”). OHSA permits employees to refuse unsafe work if they genuinely believe that they are endangered, and if this belief is reasonable in the circumstances. The employer must then investigate the refusal and possibly resolve safety issues. However, if the employee’s refusal to return to work is unreasonable, the employer may be able to treat the employee as having resigned.

How does this affect Alberta employees whose companies have recalled them during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

It depends on what safety measures the company has implemented to protect the employees. This will differ according to the type of business and workplace. If you are concerned about your health and safety during your return to work, first ask your employer about the return to work plan and what safety measures are in place to protect employees.

Canadian human rights legislation may require employee accommodation

Employees are protected against discrimination in their workplace under the Human Rights Act (“HRA”). Some protected grounds include medical or physical needs and family care obligations. An employee may request accommodation on a protected ground. If an employee requests accommodation, then the employer must take reasonable steps to accommodate the employee up to undue hardship.

For example, if you have a pre-existing medical condition, you may be leery of returning to work. You don’t want to lose your job, but you’re also concerned about your health. You may be able to request that your company accommodate your return to work.

Another example is for those with kids who are required to return to work, even though schools and many daycares remain closed. An employee’s caregiving responsibilities may require the employer to accommodate.

What is sufficient accommodation in Alberta?

There is no absolute rule on what an employer needs to do to accommodate an employee. However, the words “reasonable steps” and “up to undue hardship” in HRA means that the employer needs to make best efforts to accommodate someone, though they don’t have to go bankrupt or completely change their business to do so. Appropriate accommodation will vary from employee to employee and from business to business.

Talk to your employer

If you have concerns about returning to work, talk to your employer about your concerns. If you believe that you may not be safe in your workplace, or that your company is not accommodating your medical condition or child care problems, consult with an employment lawyer, especially before refusing to return to work.

Looking for more answers and legal advice? Reach out to Heather Tyminski at Heather.Tyminski@mainwoodlegal.com.

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