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Do I have the right to refuse work? Your COVID-19 questions answered – CBC.ca

We’re breaking down what you need to know about the pandemic by answering your questions. You can send us your questions via email at COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday on our website, and we’re also putting some of your questions to the experts on the air during The National and News Network. So far we’ve received more than 35,000 emails from all corners of the country.

Can teachers refuse work if province and school board don’t require staff and students to wear masks?

This question was sent to us by Adam, but it’s something several Quebecers have been asking us given the reopening of schools Monday.

As it stands, teachers and students in Quebec are not required to wear masks in the schools. In a statement to CBC News, Quebec’s Ministry of Education says additional personal protective equipment will be provided to daycare workers, but there are other measures in place to keep teachers and children safe including increased hygiene protocols, physical distancing, and smaller class sizes.

They also say they have made funds available to school service centres so they may provide reusable face coverings to staff who request them.

So what does this mean for teachers? Can they refuse to work if they feel unsafe given staff and students aren’t required to wear masks?

Quebec lawyers Marc-Andre Groulx and Michel Brisebois of the law firm BCF Business Law say not requiring teachers to wear masks is likely not a sufficient reason — under Quebec law — for teachers to refuse work.

“Under the Act Respecting Occupational Health and Safety, a worker must be in the presence of a danger to his health, safety or physical well-being or that would expose another person to a similar danger,” Groulx and Brisebois wrote in an emailed response.

They said the current circumstances aren’t seen as an immediate danger.

In their opinion, the lawyers say teachers who want to refuse work because masks are not required will not succeed. That’s because the guidelines that Quebec’s Ministry of Health has put forth are designed to minimize the danger.

Another Quebec lawyer, Yann Bernard at Langlois LLP, had a similar point of view.

“It’s important to make the difference between risk and danger,” says Bernard, adding the current interpretation of Quebec’s health and safety law is that the absence of masks doesn’t represent a danger to teachers or students. Rather it’s a risk. “It’s a high threshold.”

The Commission des normes, de l’equite, de la sante et de la securite du travail (CNESST), the Quebec agency that deals with occupational health and safety, provided a standards guide, which became available early last week.

It has put the teachers’ unions in a frustrating position, with the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT), Heidi Yetman, calling it “very general” and “a bit disappointing.”

“According to the [act], a worker has a right to refuse if they are exposed to a danger to their health, safety or well-being,” Yetman said.

“Danger is difficult to demonstrate since there will have been protocols put in place by the employer.”

Yetman says the unions will need to work closely with the teachers to ensure the CNESST protocols are upheld, but admits the right of refusal will be “almost impossible.”

The Ministry of Education said it understands there are circumstances in which teachers will be in prolonged contact with students, and are allowed to wear face coverings if it reassures them.

Can your employer force you to go back to work if you don’t have child care?

Tim S. sent us a question on his right to refuse work if daycare and schools are still closed and there is no one to look after his kid.

We took the question to Toronto employment lawyer Howard Levitt to give us his take. He says in a situation like this Tim does have the right to refuse.

“He has a right to stay home and look after a child if there’s no one else available to do it or if there’s no daycare available,” says Levitt, who is also a senior partner at Levitt LLP.

Amiri Dear, a lawyer with Hummingbird Lawyers LLP with a specialization in employment law, agrees and says employers have the duty to accommodate employees with children who are facing this situation “up to the point of undue hardship.”

“This could mean offering flexible hours or allowing an employee to continue to work from home, if he or she refuses to return to work to take care of children,” Dear said.

“If an employee cannot complete his or her work from home, she or he can still take a leave of absence under Ontario’s Employment Standards Amendment Act (Infectious Disease Emergencies) 2020, which offers a job-protected unpaid leave of absence.”

Levitt adds that if an employee needs to stay home to care for a child because no child care is available, they are protected from being fired under human rights legislation and may continue collecting the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

“CERB specifically states that a parent who is required to stay home because the child is out of school or daycare as a result of it being closed, is entitled,” Levitt said.

However, the situation is different if there are child-care options available.

For example, some companies may organize child care for their employees’ children. If this is the case, Levitt says employees would have to utilize it. “[You] won’t have a choice not to.”

How can I calm my anxiety about reopening?

As provinces across Canada start relaxing COVID-19 restrictions, Kelly W. from Burnaby, B.C. is wondering how to cope with her anxiety?

“It’s very understandable to be a little anxious about the partial relaxing of the rules.”

Allan Findlay, a therapist with New Insights Counselling in Toronto, says a lot of people are feeling unsure.

For eight weeks or so Canadians have been staying home, practicing physical distancing and keeping away from friends and family in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. And while the collective efforts are having an impact, according to Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, there is still no vaccine or cure for the virus.

“Now we are facing another challenge and change,” Findlay said.

“We know that there is still not enough testing, there’s no medication to treat COVID-19, and a vaccine is at least a year away. So a risk remains. This makes us feel anxious about venturing out into this unknown.”

And since the rules are being revised and evolving regularly, the lack of predictability can also be unsettling.

Findlay advises “managing your anxiety [by] taking control of what you can and minimizing your own risk based on your own personal comfort level.”

For help with your anxiety there are counselling supports and information available online.

An infectious disease specialist answers questions about the COVID-19 pandemic including whether contact sports will have to wait for a vaccine before resuming. 3:02

Friday we answered questions about Mother’s Day gifts and possible HVAC transmission.

Keep your questions coming by emailing us at COVID@cbc.ca.

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