With changes and updates coming out almost daily, set out below is a brief summary of recent announcements from the federal government, and provincial governments in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia, which relate to employment matters. This information is current as of March 31, 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic and government responses to the pandemic continues to evolve, the information below is subject to change and we will continue to provide updates on those changes. If you have a specific question or require more detailed information, please contact a member of our Employment & Labour group.
PRELIMINARY COMMENTS ON WAGE SUBSIDY
On March 30, 2020, the federal government announced that it will increase the previously announced wage subsidy for qualifying businesses from 10 per cent to 75 per cent, for up to three months, retroactive to March 15, 2020. To qualify for the wage subsidy, a business must show that its revenue has decreased by at least 30 per cent because of COVID-19. Under the new wage subsidy, the federal government will cover up to 75 per cent of an employee’s salary on the first C$58,700 earned, to a maximum of C$847 per week.
Further details regarding eligibility criteria for this wage subsidy and how to apply are expected to be announced shortly. However, the wage subsidy is anticipated to provide a tangible alternative to layoffs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. We will provide a further update on this new initiative as and when that information becomes available.
INCOME SUPPORT FOR EMPLOYEES AND THE CANADA EMERGENCY RESPONSE BENEFIT
On March 25, 2020, the federal government announced the implementation of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which replaces both the Emergency Care Benefit and Emergency Support benefit that were announced the prior week. For more information, please see our March 2020 Blakes Bulletin: Considerations for Pensions and Benefits During COVID-19.
Under the legislation, the CERB will provide C$2,000 per month for up to 16 weeks for workers who cease working and lose their income for a variety of reasons relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, including those who would otherwise be ineligible for regular employment insurance (EI) benefits, such as contractors and self-employed individuals. A new online portal for accessing the CERB is expected to be available shortly. Payments under the CERB will be backdated to March 15, 2020, and will be paid every four weeks until October 2, 2020.
Canadians who are already receiving EI regular and sickness benefits will continue to receive their EI benefits and should not apply for CERB. If employees still have income loss following the exhaustion of CERB benefits, regular EI benefits will also be available.
Employees may also be eligible for other provincial income support benefits, such as Alberta’s Emergency Isolation Support benefit, B.C.’s Emergency Benefit for Workers, Quebec’s Temporary Aid for Workers Program and Ontario’s one-time payment for parents of children affected by school and daycare closures.
ONTARIO, ALBERTA AND QUEBEC CLOSE ALL NON-ESSENTIAL BUSINESSES
Effective March 24, 2020, at 11:59 PM EDT, the provincial governments in both Ontario and Quebec ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses until April 8, 2020, and April 13, 2020, respectively, with the possibility of an extension. On March 30, 2020, the Government of Quebec also ordered that all retail commercial establishments be closed to the public on Sundays—with the exception of a few essential services—in an attempt to give frontline retail workers a break during COVID-19. The full list of what constitutes an “essential service” in Ontario is expansive and can be found here. The list of what is deemed a “priority service” in Quebec can be found here. In both provinces, teleworking and online commerce are permitted at all times for all businesses. For a more in-depth overview of the these orders, please see our March 2020 Blakes Bulletin: COVID-19 Update: Ontario, Quebec Order All Non-Essential Businesses to Shut Down.
Effective March 27, 2020, the Government of Alberta also announced the immediate closure of all “non-essential businesses.” However, unlike in Ontario and Quebec, the Alberta government did not provide an end date and there is no indication about how long these measures will be in place. A list of essential services in Alberta can be found here.
As the enacting legislation in Ontario (Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act), Alberta (Public Health Act) and Quebec (Public Health Act) provide for steep fines and, in Ontario, a term of imprisonment for individuals (including officers and directors of a corporation), for breaching the orders, it is imperative that individuals and corporations comply with these directives. If you are not sure whether your company performs an essential service, we urge you to seek clarification from the applicable provincial government.
It should also be noted that being designated as an “essential service” does not detract from an employer’s occupational health and safety obligations, including their duty to take every reasonable precaution to protect workers from hazards in the workplace. Employers should develop effective plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, and may consider adjusting policies and procedures to address public health guidelines. The Government of Canada has also published a guide on Preventing COVID-19 in the Workplace: Advice for Employers, Employees and Essential Services Workers, which offers some helpful tips to assist employers to ensure that essential services can continue being delivered in a safe manner.
OTHER GOVERNMENT SUPPORT FOR BUSINESSES
On March 26, 2020, the Government of Ontario announced that premium payments to the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB) will be deferred for six months for all businesses in the province. All employers covered by the WSIB’s workplace insurance are automatically eligible for the deferral and do not need to opt in for this benefit. The deferral will last until August 31, 2020. The WSIB will also cease interest accrual on all outstanding premium payments. They will not charge penalties during the six-month deferral period. Quebec has also deferred workers compensation payments until August 31, 2020, and Alberta has deferred premium payments until early 2021.
The federal government has deferred the due date for paying any income tax amounts that become owing or due between March 18, 2020, and September 1, 2020, until September 1, 2020.
The governments in Ontario, B.C., Alberta and Quebec have also announced similar tax relief measures to help support struggling businesses. In Ontario, these include increasing the Employer Health Tax (EHT) exemption for 2020 to C$1-million, as well as a five-month relief period—beginning on April 1, 2020, and ending on August 31, 2020—for Ontario businesses who are unable to remit provincial taxes due to COVID-19. B.C. is also extending the filing and payment deadlines for EHT and provincial sales taxes until September 30, 2020. In Alberta, corporate income tax balances and instalment payments that become due between March 18, 2020, and August 31, 2020, are deferred until August 31, 2020. Quebec has introduced similar tax deferral measures, suspending tax installments due between March 18, 2020, and September 1, 2020, until September 1, 2020.
FEDERAL WORK-SHARING AGREEMENTS
On March 11, 2020, the Government of Canada introduced temporary special measures that extend the maximum duration of work-sharing agreements from 38 to 76 weeks across Canada for businesses affected by the downturn in business due to COVID-19. Work-sharing is an adjustment program that helps employers avoid layoffs, by allowing eligible employees to receive EI income support benefits while temporarily working reduced hours. To access the work-sharing program, employees and employers must apply together.
JOB-PROTECTED LEAVES RELATED TO COVID-19
The provincial governments in Ontario, Alberta, B.C., and the federal government, have all recently announced that employees affected by COVID-19, including those who are required to self-isolate or care for a child or dependent who is required to self-isolate, are entitled to an unpaid, job-protected leave. The length of the leave and eligibility criteria differs by province. If you have an employee requesting a job-protected leave and are unsure if he or she qualifies, we are here to help.