CHAUDHRI: Ontario budget leaves employees in the cold

Sunira Chaudhri is an employment and labour lawyer and partner at Levitt LLP. She sheds light on some questions for employees during COVID-19.

Supplied photo / Levitt LLP

The Ontario budget made a fashionably late appearance this year — eight months after its usual appearance as COVID-19 hurled our economy into a tailspin.

I read the budget with an eye to how Ontario employees, many of whom experienced remarkable reductions in work since March, stand to benefit from the province’s spending for the remainder of 2020.

Unfortunately, there is not much for employees to write home about. Nonetheless, there is some good news.

The budget strongly focuses on workplace safety as Ontario has committed to hiring an additional 98 occupational health and safety workers to respond to workplace safety complaints brought on by COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace. Employees need to feel safe attending work during a pandemic and access to this resource is critical to ensuring employers are kept in check and follow social distancing, PPE and mask guidelines.

The budget also gives special attention to frontline workers, referencing increased rates of pay to these workers during the pandemic and a robust budget boosting access to PPE for those workers on the frontlines in the healthcare sector.

However, the government did not reach into its coffers on pressing employee issues that need attention now.

The budget critically missed the mark on daycare, by failing to mention it anywhere, and continues to leave moms and parents behind. I have spoken to many clients who are parents and were sanctioned by employers during COVID-19 for having to juggle childcare obligations during work hours. Many struggled with children wandering into zoom meetings, scheduling work commitments to after the school day ended and most critically, finding care for children for parents who have to physically go to work while their children schooled remotely.

With no sustainable childcare solutions, disproportionately more women will have to choose between their jobs and facilitating remote schooling for their children. The she-cession lives on.

The budget broadly referenced increased spending for more COVID-19 testing, including a section that calls for “Rapid Testing.” On this the budget provides “Ontario is committed to deploying new rapid testing options to quickly isolate cases of COVID-19 and stop the spread.”

This being said, I am not aware of any rapid testing yet available to workplaces in the province.

Workplaces need access to rapid testing now, to keep workplaces open and to minimize disruption when workplaces suffer COVID-19 outbreaks. Many workplaces completely shut down after an employee tests positive and remains closed until every employee is able to get tested. That could take weeks and cost dollars and, importantly lose customers.

Curiously, the budget is not forward looking when it comes to how employees and gig economy workers will work in a post pandemic world. The reality is many employees will never return to the office. The budget is silent as to any investment in technology to facilitate remote working infrastructure for provincial government workers. The government should be leading the charge on remote working and setting the standard for remote work for the private sector to model and more importantly to free up expensive government capital.

Employees received short shrift in the Ontario budget leaving it on the shoulders of private sector employers to construct a model for true change.


On to your questions from the week:

Q. What if you literally cannot breathe with the mask on, and that you actually start perspiring with it on? Does this require an official doctor’s note statement that you have to pull your mask off from time to time?

A. If you cannot breathe you should get a medical note for work. Not only that, you could be questioned any time you are not wearing a mask indoors per provincial guidelines. Removing your mask to eat and drink is reasonable, but if you require more time without a mask you may need additional workplace accommodations and your workplace may also need to facilitate distancing for other employees.

Q. Our workplace received an “anonymous” complaint that we are not following COVID guidelines, which is untrue. We are 99% certain who the employee is that called the OHSA to complain. Everything complained about is untrue. Can we confront this employee?

A. I would discourage you from confronting any employee as this employee could allege, they have been retaliated against for seeking to ensure their workplace is safe. If the workplace complaint is bogus, the workplace will be cleared, and your company can use the clean bill of health as a complete vindication. Turn the decision into a communication to all employees that you, in fact, are doing things right and will continue to do so.

Send your workplace questions to and your question may be featured in a future article. Until then, stay safe my friends.

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