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I'm worried about returning to my workplace because of COVID-19. What can I do?

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I'm worried about returning to my workplace because of COVID-19. What can I do?
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I'm worried about returning to my workplace because of COVID-19. What can I do?
Reviewed: 
October 7, 2020
Answer

Many employers in Ontario have re-opened their workplaces. And employees may be worried about going back because of the risk of catching COVID-19 while they’re at work.

This might apply to you if you have a weak or compromised immune system.  

Normally, your boss can expect you come to work. It will probably not be enough to say that you want to stay home because you’re afraid of catching COVID-19. But there are some situations where you can stay home.  

If you have to stay home to care for a family member, read the question I have to stay home from work to care for my children or another family member. What are my rights?

If you’re at extra risk

Some people are at extra risk from COVID-19. If you have a medical condition that makes you more vulnerable, like diabetes or a heart condition, you might be at greater risk of catching COVID-19 if you return to your workplace.

If this is your situation, you have 2 options:

Ask for accommodation

The Ontario Human Rights Code says that employers can’t discriminate against employees for reasons such as their gender, race, family status, or disability.

It might be discrimination if your workplace puts you at greater risk of getting COVID-19 because of a disability you have. For example, if you have a weakened immune system, you might be at greater risk of COVID-19.

If your employer forces you to come to the office, this might be discrimination.

But your employer can ask for medical documents that prove you have a disability.

To avoid discriminating against you, your employer may have to offer different working conditions that don’t put you at risk. This is called "accommodation" and might include:

  • letting you work from home
  • letting you work different hours, or
  • giving you a safe place where there’s a lower risk of you getting infected.

Your employer has to accommodate you only to the point of "undue hardship". This means that they don’t have to accommodate you if it would be too difficult. For example, if there’s no work that you can do from home, they don’t have to let you do this.

Get help when you ask for accommodation

This can be a complicated area of law. If you’re thinking about asking for accommodation, you might want to get more information first.

You can also contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre for free legal advice and information. They can help you figure out:

  • if your situation is discrimination
  • if there are things you can do to convince your employer to accommodate you
  • if you can make a claim with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario
  • what evidence you need to help prove that your employer is discriminating against you

Take the Infectious Disease Emergency Leave

If you don’t want to ask for accommodation or you can’t be accommodated because of the job you do, your other option is to take the Infectious Disease Emergency Leave. This is an unpaid leave.

If you want to do this, you need to tell your employer as soon as possible.

If you’re taking the leave because you have a condition that makes you more vulnerable to COVID-19, you do not need to give your employer a doctor’s note.

But your employer can ask for "reasonable" proof. So you’ll probably have to give them some details about why you need the leave.

There’s no limit on the number of days for this leave. You can take the leave for as long as you need it. This means that you can take it only until the reason for the leave ends. For example, if your immune system is compromised because of medication and you stop taking the medication, you’d have to go back to work once it was safe to do so.

The leave is available until January 2, 2021. The government may extend this if the COVID-19 situation has not improved.

Other options

If you have vacation time, you may be able to use this before going on the Infectious Disease Emergency Leave. And you may be able to use paid sick days, if you have them, depending on your employer’s sick leave policy. This will allow you to continue to get paid while on leave.  

Even if these other options are available to you, you don’t have to use them. You can choose to take the Infectious Disease Emergency Leave if you prefer.

Get legal help

If you don’t feel safe at work, and your employer is not letting you work from home, you may want to get legal help.

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