19 January 2021, 9:00 a.m.
Some 900,000 employees work in Canada’s 18,000 federally regulated workplaces. Under the Canada Labour Code (Code), employers in these workplaces must ensure the health and safety of their employees by, for example, creating hazard prevention programs to address a biological hazard such as COVID-19. Employees must follow safety procedures and have the right to refuse dangerous work. Similar provisions exist at the provincial and territorial levels.
Public health measures imposed due to the pandemic, however, have led some workplaces to close or reduce their hours of operation. Some workers have been away from work for other reasons related to the pandemic, such as contracting COVID-19 or having to care for a child or family member requiring supervised care. This HillNote provides an overview of the main income supports and job-protected leaves of absence for federally regulated employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Employment Insurance Benefits
Under the Employment Insurance Act, Employment Insurance (EI) benefits are available to all eligible claimants, whether in federally regulated or other workplaces. These include:
- Regular Benefits: available to those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and cannot find employment – provided for 14 to 45 weeks based on the regional unemployment rate and the insurable hours accumulated (between 420 and 700 hours).
- Sickness Benefits: provided to those who are unable to work because of illness, injury or quarantine – offered for a maximum of 15 weeks.
- Family Caregiving Benefits: offered to those who are away from work to care for critically ill children under 18 or critically ill adults – provided for up to 35 weeks in the case of critically ill children or for up to 15 weeks in the case of critically ill adults.
In response to COVID-19, the federal government has introduced a series of changes to the EI system, largely through interim orders. The latest set of reforms are meant to facilitate access to EI benefits and are in place for one year, effective 27 September 2020. These reforms follow the phase-out of the EI Emergency Response Benefit, which provided income supports to eligible EI claimants from 15 March to 3 October 2020.
Notably, claimants can now access a one-time top-up of 300 insurable hours to help them meet the 420 insured hours of work required to qualify for regular benefits, or 480 insurable hours to help them meet the 600 insured hours of work required to qualify for special benefits. The qualifying period, typically the 52-week period to accumulate insurable hours, is extended for those who received emergency response benefits.
Effective 9 August 2020, the minimum unemployment rate used to calculate EI regular benefits has been set at 13.1% for all regions across Canada, meaning claimants can temporarily receive a minimum of 26 weeks of regular benefits. Furthermore, medical certificates are not required for EI sickness benefits.
The minimum benefit rate has also been temporarily set at $500 per week for most EI benefits, if this amount is higher than what the claimant’s benefits would otherwise be. Most EI benefits are offered at a rate of 55% of the claimant’s average weekly insurable earnings, up to $56,300 as of 1 January 2021 (equivalent to a weekly maximum of $595).
In response to COVID-19, the federal government has also enacted the Canada Recovery Benefits Act to authorize the payment of three temporary recovery benefits to workers affected by COVID-19 who are not entitled to EI benefits.
These benefits were introduced following the phase-out of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), authorized under the Canada Emergency Response Benefit Act and available from 15 March to 3 October 2020. As of 4 October 2020, the federal government had processed 27.56 million CERB applications. The need for a solution like the CERB has led some stakeholders to call for permanent changes to the EI system to address income support gaps.
The recovery benefits, which may be accessed from 27 September 2020 to 25 September 2021, are as follows:
- Canada Recovery Benefit: available for up to 26 weeks for workers who have stopped working or have had a 50% reduction in their average weekly income due to COVID-19.
- Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit: available for up to two weeks for workers who are unable to work because they contracted or might have contracted COVID-19, must self-isolate, or are more susceptive to COVID-19 due to an underlying health condition.
- Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit: available for up to 26 weeks for workers who must care for a child under 12 or a family member requiring supervised care for reasons related to COVID-19 (such as the closure of schools or care facilities, having contracted COVID-19, needing to self-isolate, or being at risk of health complications if contracting COVID-19).
Applicants must have earned at least $5,000 in 2019, 2020 or in the 12 months preceding their application, and satisfy other criteria, in order to be eligible. These benefits are paid at a weekly rate of $500.
Job-Protected Leaves of Absence
Under the Code, employees in federally regulated workplaces are entitled to several protections. These include job-protected leaves of absence such as:
- medical leave of up to 17 weeks;
- personal leave of up to 5 days; and
- leave related to critical illness of up to 17 or 37 weeks depending on whether it is taken to care for a critically ill adult or child.
One way the Code has been amended to respond to the pandemic is by adding a new leave related to COVID-19, available until 25 September 2021. Employees may take this leave for a maximum of two weeks for health-related reasons or the need to self-isolate, or for 26 weeks if they must care for a child under 12 or a family member requiring supervised care due to COVID-19.
The Code has also been amended to allow employees to take a medical leave of absence if they must quarantine. This leave is available for up to 16 weeks. Further, the requirement for a medical certificate to take medical leave has been waived until 25 September 2021.
While most leaves are unpaid under the Code, employees may have access to EI or recovery benefits during this time. For example, an employee may have access to the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit or to the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit while on leave related to COVID-19.
Employees who are not in federally regulated workplaces must turn to their applicable provincial or territorial labour standards legislation for guidance. While the level of protection varies, most provinces have added or updated an emergency or public health leave of absence during the pandemic.
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, OSH Answers Fact Sheets – Coronavirus.
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, OH&S Legislation in Canada – Three Rights of Workers.
Elizabeth Cahill, “Understanding Precarious Work in Canada,” HillNotes, Library of Parliament, December 2020.
Employment and Social Development Canada, Labour Program and federally regulated workplaces – COVID-19.
Employment and Social Development Canada, Digest of Benefit Entitlement Principles.
Interim Order No. 10 Amending the Employment Insurance Act (Employment Insurance Emergency Response Benefit), SOR/2020-208, 26 September 2020, in Canada Gazette, Part II.
Interim Order No. 8 Amending the Employment Insurance Act (Facilitated Access to Benefits), SOR/2020-187, 29 August 2020, in Canada Gazette, Part II.
Legislative Summary of Bill C-4: An Act relating to certain measures in response to COVID-19, Preliminary (unedited) version, Library of Parliament, 2 October 2020.
Legislative Summary of Bill C-13: An Act Respecting Certain Measures in Response to COVID-19, Publication no. 43-1-C13-E, Library of Parliament, 25 March 2020.
Author: Mayra Perez-Leclerc, Library of Parliament