Sask. teachers worried about COVID-19 could refuse to work – if they have the right grounds
SASKATOON -- More teachers have been inquiring about how to legally refuse unsafe work, according to the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF).
Patrick Maze, president of the STF, says teachers’ concerns about returning to the classroom follow the province’s back-to-school plan announced earlier this month.
“Having 32 or 34 students in a poorly ventilated room for six hours of the day is kind of a recipe for disaster. Some teachers are quite concerned,” Maze said.
“We’re hearing lots of questions about the process and we’re letting them know what their responsibilities are.”
Maze said teachers must “register” their concern to the school principal and the school’s occupational health and safety committee.
Stuart Rudner, an employment lawyer of nearly 20 years, said he’s been busy answering questions from employees and employers about COVID-19.
“The simple answer is, ‘Yes, you have to go back to work.’ But there are a couple of exceptions. And one of those exceptions is the right to refuse unsafe work,” Rudner said.
“You’re going to have to demonstrate that there’s an actual danger in the workplace and make your employer aware.”
If the employer disagrees there is a danger, the Ministry of Labour can intervene and assign someone to inspect the conditions.
Rudner said the danger in the workplace must be substantial and cannot be generalized fears.
“Just saying that there isn’t sufficient distancing, or there isn’t sufficient PPE, probably won’t get you far enough to show there is a danger in the workplace,” Rudner said, based on what he’s seen from Ministry of Labour’s analysis.
“You’re going to have to show that perhaps someone has the virus, or someone was exposed to the virus — that might be sufficient to show a danger.”
Most Canadians’ COVID-19 work refusal claims have been denied, according to provincial labour authorities.
Ontario saw the largest spike in work refusal claims with 278 COVID-19 related refusals from March to June, according to provincial numbers.
Ontario’s Ministry of Labour denied 277 of those claims.
In Saskatchewan, all 10 of its refusals were resolved without the involvement of the Ministry of Labour Relations.
Maze said the STF has also been receiving inquiries from teachers concerned about returning to school because they have underlying health issues and their risk to COVID-19 could be higher.
“That’s a different process, we’re helping them navigate the accommodation process,” Maze said.
Rudner said under human rights laws, employers must accommodate those with health issues.
“And that might mean allowing you to work from home, a leave of absence or somehow shifting your duties,” Rudner said.
“They’re entitled to do that, if they can’t, you’re entitled to stay home.”
The province has delayed the first day of school to Sept. 8.