Both employers and employees regularly ask us questions concerning the nature of the obligations which exist for employers in preventing workplace harassment and violence.
In December 2009, the Government of Ontario passed amendments to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “OHSA”) to address these concerns. The amendments to the OHSA impose positive obligations on employers, including that:
- Employers are required to develop written policies with respect to workplace harassment and workplace violence. These policies must be in writing and posted in a conspicuous place, and reviewed at least annually;
- Employers are required to develop and maintain a program to implement the policy with respect to workplace violence and workplace harassment;
- Employers are required to assess the risks of violence that may arise from the nature of the workplace, the type of work or the conditions of work;
- If the employer becomes aware or ought reasonably to be aware that domestic violence that would likely expose a work to physical injury may occur in the workplace, the employer shall take every precaution reasonable to protect the worker.
As an employer, you will want to ensure that adequate mechanisms exist to meet your obligations. Alternatively, as an employee, it is important that you know what steps your workplace is obligated to take to meet the legislative requirements.
If you require assistance putting together a sound employer policy, or if you would like to find out whether your employer is meeting its obligations, please feel free to contact us at (613) 270-8600 ext. 223.
Frequently Asked Questions
I have a chronic medical condition which unfortunately has become worse over time. For the last two years I have been receiving benefits through my employer’s disability insurance plan. Recently, the insurer wrote to advise me that the terms of the policy have changed and that they now require additional medical information - why is this happening and am I at risk of losing my benefits?
Most disability insurance policies provided by employers have different coverage for different periods of time. For the first two years of an employee’s disability benefits are generally provided on the basis that you cannot perform the essential duties of your existing occupation. The definition of disability changes after two years in most policies.
One of the first steps in your case is to obtain a copy of the policy from your employer. This policy will usually include a brief description of the criteria that an employee must meet to be entitled to disability benefits. In the vast majority of cases after two years of paying benefits policies will limit an employee’s entitlement to further benefits unless the employee is unable to work in any occupation to which they are reasonably suited.
Because of this change to the disability definition, insurance companies will generally review files and seek additional medical information if someone has been receiving benefits for two years. However, Ontario courts have recognized that whether an individual is able to perform any occupation depends not only on their particular disability, but also their basic skill set and educational background. In many cases insurers won’t cut off benefits once they have completed their review and have received additional medical information. However, if you and your insurer disagree about whether you are capable of returning to the workforce it may be time to contact a Lawyer.
Duty to accommodate – Where do employers draw the line?
Employers should do what they can to accommodate their employee’s disability, but there’s a line to be drawn between accommodation and frustration of the employment contract. If the contract is in fact “frustrated”, the employer can end the employment relationship without violating the Human Rights Code (Code). The question is whether the employer suffers undue hardship.
Section 11 of the Code allows the employer to show that a requirement, qualification or factor that results in discrimination is nevertheless reasonable and bona fide (legitimate). However, to do this, the employer must show that the needs of the person cannot be accommodated without undue hardship.
The duty to accommodate has both procedural and substantive obligations. The procedural component requires that the employer take steps to understand the employee’s disability-related needs and undertake an individualized investigation of potential accommodation measures to address those needs. The employer bears the onus of demonstrating what considerations, assessments and steps were undertaken to accommodate the employee to the point of undue hardship. The purpose of the duty to accommodate in an employment context is to ensure that an employee with a disability could continue to perform the essential duties of his or her employment if his or her needs can be accommodated without causing undue hardship to the employer.
The test for undue hardship is not total unfitness for work in the foreseeable future. If the characteristics of a disability are such that the proper operation of the business is hampered excessively or if an employee with such a disability remains unable to work for the reasonably foreseeable future even though the employer has tried to accommodate him or her, the employer will have satisfied the test. The duty to accommodate is compatible with general labour law rules, including both the rule that employers must respect employees' fundamental rights and the rule that employees must do their work. The employer's duty to accommodate ends where the employee is no longer able to fulfill the basic obligations associated with the employment relationship for the foreseeable future.
In Nason v. Thunder Bay Orthopaedic Inc. the employee was terminated while on unpaid medical leave. The trial judge awarded damages for wrongful dismissal. The Court of Appeal ruled that the employer’s decision to put the employee on an unpaid leave of absence was not an infringement of his rights, at that time, since the employer had already attempted to accommodate the employee. The employee could not fulfill the basic obligations of his position, despite the accommodations he received. However, the Court rejected the employer’s argument that the employment contract had been frustrated.
The onus to prove that the contract was frustrated was on the employer. The employer believed that the employee’s limitations were permanent. However, the employer did not seek medical information to sufficiently explore and conclude whether there was no reasonable likelihood that the employee could be returned to work with accommodations in the future.
The employer must assure that the tasks required of the employee are actually necessary to meet the employer’s goals. If the employee could continue his/her employment while avoiding such tasks and while still achieving the employer’s requested goal, there is no undue hardship. The test was set out by the Supreme Court of Canada. To establish a bona fide occupational requirement, the employer must prove that the requirement:
- was adopted for a purpose or goal that is rationally connected to the function being performed (such as a job, being a tenant, or participating in the service);
- was adopted in good faith, in the belief that it is necessary for the fulfilment of the purpose or goal; and
- is reasonably necessary to accomplish its purpose or goal, in the sense that it is impossible to accommodate the claimant without undue hardship.
What does this mean for Employers?
Employers should err on the side of caution and seek counsel prior to claiming frustration of the employment agreement. If it’s done prematurely, the employer could be subject to a wrongful termination claim, giving rise to common law reasonable notice or a claim for discrimination pursuant to the Code. Employers should also run an individual investigation into the employee’s limitations. It’s one thing to say that the employee cannot meet the demands of the job regardless of available accommodations. The employer must prove it by way of a proper and full investigation into the employee’s limitations. Prior to claiming frustration of the contract, the employer should consider the following:
- whether it investigated alternative approaches that do not have a discriminatory effect;
- reasons why viable alternatives, if any, can’t be put in place;
- whether it can meet the legitimate objectives in a less discriminatory way;
- whether the job requirement is properly designed to make sure the desired qualification is met without placing an undue burden on the people it applies to; and
- whether other parties who are obliged to assist in the search for accommodation have fulfilled their roles.
British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Commission) v. BCGSEU,  3 S.C.R. 3.
Ellis v. General Motors of Canada Ltd., 2011 HRTO 1453.
Nason v Thunder Bay Orthopaedic Inc, 2015 ONSC 8097,  OJ No 6892.
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My employer has again asked that I work in a foreign country. I am concerned that this posting is unsafe. Last time I worked abroad multiple bombings took place and several governments closed their embassies. I also had my personal belongings stolen while I was in what was supposed to be a secure area. Do I have to go work in this country? If I do is my employer required to provide travel insurance in case something goes wrong?
The first thing to look at is your employment contract. Most employment contracts contain both written terms, and unwritten terms that are implied into the contract by law. The written portion of an employment contract usually mentions the benefits and insurance coverage that an employer is required to provide and it may also mention work locations and travel.
Unless travel insurance is covered in the original contract, or has since been agreed to by the employer, an employer generally cannot be forced to provide travel insurance. Also, most travel insurance policies will not cover all of the risks you’ve outlined. However, the failure to mention travel or relocation in a contract may prevent an employer from requiring that an employee work in a foreign country. Whether an employer can make such a request, without it being specifically mentioned in the contract, depends primarily on the nature of the work and if foreign travel to that country was expected or foreseeable when the employee was hired or promoted into their current position.
If an employee has a legitimate fear for their safety they may be able to argue that a travel request from their employer is not consistent with their contract. The context of the employment and the country involved are important considerations. For example it could be implied into many contracts that travel to the United States is acceptable, whereas travel to parts of Afghanistan is not. It is always best to review your contract, check your facts, and consult with a Lawyer before making any demands of your employer.