Sunday, May 31, 2020

Ford Government: Ontario's 13-Week Layoff Limit Eliminated During COVID Emergency

The Ford Government has made a crucial, temporary change to Ontario's Employment Standards Act (ESA) that will impact countless employers and employees in the Province.

By operation of Ontario Regulation 228/20, published on May 29, 2020, the ordinary 13-week limit on the duration of workplace layoffs has effectively been suspended. This time-limit will not apply to employees who have been laid off due to COVID-related slowdowns and closures.

The Regulation will apply from March 1, 2020 until six-weeks after the Government ends its March 17 emergency COVID-19 declaration. It repesents a significant change that many employers have been clamouring for.

Ordinarily, where an employee is not recalled from a layoff within 13 weeks, the layoff is deemed to be a termination of employment by operation of section 56 (2)(a) of the ESA. 

There are certain exceptions in the Act to this deemed termination rule. These occur:
  • Where the extended layoff is less than 35 weeks in any period of 52 consecutive weeks, and 
  • The employee continues to receive substantial payments from the employer and
  • The employer continues benefit payments for the employee.
Essentially, this Regulation means employers will no longer have a risk of liability for statutory notice or severance payments to employees who have been laid off for more than 13 weeks due to COVID-19, or to those whose hours or compensation are reduced during the COVID period.

In addition, the Regulation provides that no COVID-related reductions in employees' hours or compensation on or after March 1, 2020 will be treated as a constructive dismissal under the Act.

Many Ontario workplaces that are still closed due to COVID would have been approaching the statutory, 13-week layoff limit within the next week or two.

There was great concern among small employers and profesional practices, in particular, that they would face enormous, mandatory severance obligations to multiple employees at once at the end of the 13 week layoff period, even if they were still unable to open.

For some employers, such severance obligations could have become bankruptcy-triggering events.

As examples, most restaurants and mall-based retail outlets are not yet legally permitted to fully reopen, and after months of closure and partial-closures due the the Emergency Declaration, many could not possibly have withstood the costs of mandatory notice and severance obligations.

Similarly, many Ontario dentists - who until changes announced May 31 remained subject to significant regulatory restrictions that prevented them from providing non-urgent care, seeing recall patients or offering dental hygiene services - have simply been unable to re-open or to recall employees, given the potentially low demand for the few services they had been able to provide.

While some have argued that this Regulation represents a major blow for employees, I'm not pursuaded that there is much truth to that.

With the elimination of the 13-week layoff limit, employees ultimately get some degree of job protection. They will not automatically be deemed to be terminated. Many love their jobs and are chomping at their collective bits to get back to work, as soon as possible.  They are prepared to work collaboratively with their employers toward re-opening and do not want to be automatically dismissed by operation of the ESA.

For those that ultimately will not be returning, their entitlements to notice and severance have been delayed, not eliminated. Most are currently receiving EI or other government benefits, in the interim. That's not a perfect solution, of course, and the uncertainty about the future remains.

Without this Regulation, however, many workplaces faced a serious risk of insolvency and closure due to notice and other statutory obligations, alone.  This legislation temporarily removes that immediate risk, and gives employers additional time to get back on their financial feet so that jobs can be preserved.

Beyond that, this Regulation 228/20 gives employers and employees the flexibiity - with mitigated legal risk - to implement the gradual, staged approach to re-opending mandated by the Province and by public health authorities.

COVID closures were not the fault of employers or employees. This Regulation appears to be a fair effort to share the burden, balance the respective interests and at very least, to buy some much needed time.

As a final note, while the Regulation addresses the statutory standards set out in the ESA, it does not at first glance appear to impact or preclude Court-based claims for damages for wrongful dismissal or constructive dismissal. This is particularly important for those employees who did not expressly agree to their current layoffs and those who have not signed valid employment agreements that permit such layoffs.

It should also be noted that his new Regulation will not be applicable to those whose workplaces reduce hours or compensation for discriminatory or improper reasons that are unrelated to COVID, or to employers that otherwise go rogue. 

As always, there remains uncertainty as to how the Courts will ultimately address such claims.  Legal advice should be obtained by any employee with concerns related to COVID in the workpace.

To arrange a consultation with a Wise Law workplace and employment lawyer, click here.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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1 comment:

Jeff Solomon said...

Very thorough and yet made easy to understand.
Thanks so much for continuing to provide relevant and helpful information