Can You Refuse to Return to Work?

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Many people will be asked to return to work soon. This might make people nervous because COVID-19 is still present. Can you legally refuse to return to work?

Your employer has asked you to return to work – must you say yes?

Normally, in order to keep your job, you must go back to work. If you were laid off temporarily, you still have an employment relationship with your employer and your employer can ask you to return to work. For example, if the business is reopening. If you refuse, your employer can fire you.

However, the law says that you have the right to be absent from work for certain reasons. In these cases, you cannot be fired. For example, you have the right to take up to 10 days off for family reasons (ex: taking care of your kids). You can also be absent because you are sick.

You employer can also make accommodations for your return to work depending on your situation (health, kids at home, etc.). Don’t hesitate to speak with your employer. Employers have been asked to be flexible in this time of crisis. 

Do you believe you have been fired unjustly? You can file a complaint to the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et la sécurité au travail (CNESST or labour standards commission).

Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) and returning to work

If you make more than $1,000 a month before tax, you cannot continue to receive the CERB. Verify with the Canada Revenue Agency if you have to repay the money received through the CERB.

Refusing to work because you are worried for your health

The law says that a worker can refuse to work if working is dangerous for them or for another person. This is called the “right to refuse”. You must advise your employer rapidly if you wish to exercise your right to refuse. You must explain why you refuse to work. Your employer can then propose solutions to your concerns.

However, COVID-19 by itself will probably not be a valid reason to refuse to return to work if your employer takes the appropriate hygiene measures. In the current situation, other factors could justify a refusal. For example, health conditions can be a reason to refuse to work. Each case is different and must be examined individually.  

If your employer disagrees with you or if your situation remains dangerous, you can call the CNESST at 1-844-838-0808. An inspector from the CNESST can visit your job and determine whether you can legally use your right to refuse.

Your employer must follow public health directives

Your employer must follow public health directives and offer you a workplace that is safe and healthy.

For example, your employer must adapt your workplace to respect physical distancing as much as possible. They must also provide protective equipment if necessary as well as regularly clean and disinfect areas that are frequently touched (tables, counters, handles, bathrooms, etc.).

The CNESST has prepared a guide and other tools (French only) to guide the return to work in a respectful and safe way.

Important! For the moment, not all workplaces are open. Dates have been announced for many businesses, but timelines may change. Please stay informed by visiting the Quebec government’s website.