TORONTO — Employment lawyers are warning that workers can’t just “walk off the job” during the coronavirus pandemic, despite Premier Doug Ford’s insistence that they can.
The premier said at three separate press conferences this week that construction workers — and any others who feel unsafe on the job — have the right to leave their jobs if they don’t feel safe working.
“Let me be very clear … We passed legislation. Not just construction workers — any worker in Ontario — if you don’t feel safe in your workplace, your job will be protected,” Ford said Tuesday. “You can leave the job site.”
“... you can walk off the job.”
The next day, he said it again.
“I want to make it very, very clear ... If the workplace, the construction site, is not safe, you can walk off the job.”
Ford’s government passed Bill 186 last week. The law provides job-protected leave to workers who have to stay home because they have been directed to quarantine or self-isolate by a medical or public health professional or because they have to care for a family member, including kids who are at home while schools are closed.
Watch: Here’s who qualifies for Canada’s emergency coronavirus benefit. Story continues after video.
Lawyers tell HuffPost Canada the bill does not cover workers who are not ill, have not been directed to self-isolate and aren’t taking care of a family member.
“It’s job-protected leave for very specific reasons,” explained Daniel Wong, a partner at Toronto law firm WeirFoulds LLP. “That’s different than a person saying, ‘I don’t feel that this is safe.’”
Ford’s government has faced heat for keeping construction sites open while workplaces deemed “non-essential” have been shut down.
“It makes no sense that you can’t have your neighbour over for a cup of coffee yet construction sites are expected to continue operations and they can have hundreds of employees working in close proximity to each other,” said Phil Gillies, executive director of the Ontario Construction Consortium, in a statement Tuesday.
“This is contrary to the best advice of public health officials to maintain social distancing.”
“It makes no sense that you can’t have your neighbour over for a cup of coffee yet construction sites are expected to continue operations.”
Ontario’s new job leave includes anyone following the advice of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health to “isolate” or “quarantine,” a spokesperson for the minister of labour told HuffPost Canada.
But right now, Ontario’s official advice is to self isolate only if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have travelled and recently returned home.
A spokeswoman for Ford said that workers have the right to refuse unsafe work.
“If that’s the case, the worker should raise their concerns with their supervisor, employer and health and safety rep if they have one,” Ivana Yelich said by email.
Report and stay at site if conditions are unsafe
Wong said workers have the right to refuse unsafe work but it is a “different concept” than the type of leave covered in Bill 186.
“They can initiate what’s called a work refusal. And there’s a prescribed process under the Occupational Health and Safety Act that is triggered when a person raises that concern,” he said.
“That includes an employer conducting an initial investigation and inquiry into the worker’s concern and attempting to resolve it to the worker’s satisfaction. If the worker’s not satisfied, then the Ministry of Labour will get involved and an inspector will determine if the workers are safe or if certain things need to be changed.”
Another lawyer who specializes in workplace safety agreed.
Employees must wait in a safe place at their workplace after reporting unsafe conditions to wait for an investigation, said John Bartholomeo, co-executive director of the Workplace Health and Safety Legal Clinic.
Workers should read Bill 186 carefully to determine if they qualify for unpaid leave, Wong suggested.
“They should clearly communicate both the reason that they’re taking the leave and that they’re taking the leave under the new amendments so that the employer understands what they’re talking about and at least knows the reasons why.”