Alberta’s Human Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals in the course of their employment based on the protected grounds listed in the Act. The protected grounds include race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, gender identity, gender expression, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status, and sexual orientation. 

All employers are typically allowed to structure their workplaces as they see fit, but in doing so they must also balance the employees’ rights to non-discrimination. Negative treatment of employees simply because they have or are believed to have COVID-19, for reasons aside from public health and safety, may be discriminatory and prohibited under the Act.

What Accommodations Can Be Made for Employees?

An employer may be required to accommodate an employee up to the point of undue hardship on the basis of these protected grounds. Undue hardship may include excessive cost, health and safety concerns, or challenges specific to a given workplace. 

  • For example, if an employee has a compromised immune system and must remain in isolation as a result, then an employer likely must accommodate this disability so long as it would not cause the employer undue hardship to do so. Where the employee shows that they require accommodation of one of the protected grounds and is able to fulfill their duties while working remotely, an employer should provide the accommodation.
  • Another ground of protection is family status. As a result, if an employee has a family member who is at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, the employer cannot discriminate against this employee. This may be the case for an employee living with or married to a health care worker for example. Family status also includes child care needs, such that an employer may be required to accommodate an employee who must alter their work schedule in order to care for their children while schools and child care facilities are closed.
However, accommodation does not mean the employer must provide financial assistance for care-givers. In addition to human rights protection, as of March 17, 2020, the Province temporarily changed the Employment Standards Code to give employees job-protected leave for a period of time that is necessary to meet the employee’s family responsibilities to care for ill or self-isolated family members, or children affected by school and daycare closures.

As discussed in our previous posts, it is not discriminatory to terminate employees for other valid reasons, such as a lack of work due to the pandemic. However, if the real reason for termination or discipline is a protected ground, such as an employee having contracted COVID-19 or because they had to take care of a family member with COVID-19, then that employee may have a valid human rights complaint. 

For assistance in this regard, please contact a member of our Employment and Labour Law team. We would love to assist you.

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Emery Jamieson LLP