By Lisa Cameron
As businesses continue to re-open across Nova Scotia, workers adjust to employment during the time of COVID. The unprecedented nature of the pandemic has raised several legal questions about an employer’s duty to respect health and safety protocols for the sake of their staff, and the public.
The Halifax Workers’ Action Centre, an organization that provides free legal information to low-wage and marginalized workers, has received several calls from employees about their workplace rights during COVID. Among other questions, workers want to know if they can be fired for quarantining.
On June 28, Rory Carter was hired as a server at a popular restaurant in downtown Halifax. During her interview, Carter informed the restaurant owner that she had plans to visit her family in Saskatchewan and asked if this would be an issue.
“I explained that I would have to quarantine for two weeks upon return to Nova Scotia,” says Carter. “I understood that such a long work absence might leave them short-staffed, and I wanted to be upfront. My vacation request was immediately approved, including the 14-day isolation period. I went home to Saskatoon for a quick visit, confident that my job would be waiting for me upon my return.”
Carter left for her trip on July 15. Before she returned, she noticed that she had been removed from the work schedule.
“All of my shifts were gone,” Carter says. “I messaged the bar manager and asked if there had been a mistake. He explained that business had picked up, and that all my shifts had been given away.”
Carter asked her boss if, after her quarantine was finished, a return to work would be possible. Her manager then confirmed that her position had been filled. “He said that he could not accommodate my quarantine after all and wished me the best in finding a new position.”
Securing alternative employment on short notice is not easy. “It can take time, particularly during a pandemic,” says Carter. “Plus, my quarantine had just started. I wouldn’t have been able to begin a new job for 2-weeks and I wasn’t able to apply for work in-person. I was left in a bad position.”
Terminating an employee for following public health directives can come with legal consequences to the employer.
“Under the Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code, an employee has the right to a leave if an emergency is declared under the Emergency Management Act or Health Protection Act that prevents the employee from performing work duties,” says Asaf Rashid, a lawyer on a temporary leave from practice and an active member of the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre.
The COVID-19 health emergency is ongoing. “If any employee is ordered to quarantine or self-isolate due to COVID-19, and they have not been provided with any accommodation to work from home, they cannot perform their work duties,” says Rashid. “An employer who terminates an employee in these circumstances is disregarding the emergency and the rights of the employee under the Code.”
Beyond defying labour standards legislation, an employer who terminates or disciplines an employee for following public health directives may also be infringing on their human rights. On June 2, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC) issued a statement explaining that employers have a duty to accommodate workers who are required to quarantine or self-isolate.
“If an employer terminates an employee for following quarantine or self-isolation requirements, their actions are doubly devastating,” says Rashid. “For one, they have wrongly ended an employee’s source of income. Secondly, they are sending the message to other employees to break quarantine or self-isolation rules to keep their jobs, which could land employees with massive fines.”
There are legal avenues for those who have been punished or terminated for quarantining.
“An employee who has been terminated or suffered retaliation through a cutting of their hours or other losses can file a Labour Standards complaint,” says Rashid. “They can also make a human rights complaint to the NSHRC.”
The Halifax Workers’ Action Centre offers assistance to low-wage workers in filing labour standards and human rights complaints, as well as demand letters to employers who are infringing on their rights.
With support from the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre, Carter is in the process of filing a labour standards complaint against her former employer. However, the situation has made her feel discouraged.
“This experience has taught me that some bosses simply don’t care about the person behind the position,” she says. “We’re expendable. To some, our livelihood is just a position to be filled in accordance with the employers’ need.”
If you or someone you know is being punished at work for following quarantine or self-isolation requirements, contact the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre.
*Editor’s note: Name has been changed to protect the identity of the worker