On May 29, 2020, Ontario made new regulations under the Employment Standards Act, 2000 to address the legal effects of widespread layoffs. These layoffs arose both from employers having a lack of business and the need of many to take time off work due either to the direct or downstream effects of COVID-19 and the measures taken to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.

The Employment Standards Act, 2000 already allowed for emergency leave for employees who were infected, under mandated isolation, or caring for a close family member. The new regulations primarily provide new rights to employers who lay off employees due to coronavirus.

The regulations allow employers to avoid the  temporary layoff provisions of the Employment Standards Act which convert a temporary layoff into a termination of employment after a certain time period has elapsed. The regulations provide relief from employers by converting the temporary layoff into infectious disease emergency leave as opposed to a termination. The regulations also allow employers to stop contributing to employee benefit plans while employees are on infectious disease emergency leave.

The regulations were released on May 29, 2020, meaning that employers who laid off employees in early March will be exempt from the application of the 13-week and 35-week thresholds required for a layoff to be deemed a termination of employment.  They also deem any complaints that were filed with the Ministry of Labour alleging termination or severance of employment due to a reduction in hours caused by COVID-19 not to have been filed.

How do these new regulations affect my rights?

These new regulations primarily affect your ability to assert that your employer has constructively dismissed you by reducing your hours or not allowing you to work for an extended period of time due to COVID-19. The regulations are fairly clear that such a claim cannot be asserted against your employer with the Ministry of Labour Training and Skills Development Employment Standards Branch.

These regulations risk severely curtailing the remedies available to the some of the province’s most vulnerable workers who may face practical challenges to accessing court-ordered common-law remedies.

However, these regulations appear to only affect the Employment Standards Act, 2000, and not the common law which also provides entitlements for employees in certain situations. As a general rule, the Employment Standards Act, 2000 does not affect an employee’s ability to bring a common law claim against their employer. You may still be able to assert a constructive wrongful dismissal claim at common law if you have been laid off work or if there has been a reduction in your hours (to learn more about what you could claim, see What is Reasonable Notice?). In Popescu v Wittman Canada Inc the Ontario Superior Court confirmed that a constructive dismissal can occur despite the preconditions for constructive dismissal under the Employment Standards Act, 2000 not having been met, meaning it does not have to be a constructive dismissal under the Act to be a constructive dismissal at common law.

These new regulations may also influence the interpretation of existing employment contracts. It is possible that common-law courts will develop their own doctrines to deal with the impact of COVID-19 on employment contracts. Your ability to assert a constructive dismissal will depend heavily on the terms of your employment contract and your individual circumstances. You should seek legal advice before deciding what to do.  

[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without consideration of your individual circumstances.]