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“These employers can actually be sued for laying people off if the employment agreements don’t originally allow for those layoffs to happen to begin with,” says one labour lawyer

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that more help is on the way for small and medium-sized businesses that have been upended by COVID-19 on March 27. 

For employers that qualify, the businesses will be eligible to have up to 75 per cent of its payroll covered, in addition to access to interest-free loans. 

“Our hope is that employers being pushed to lay off people because of COVID-19 will think again,” Trudeau said.

For the ailing cannabis sector, which was already on shaky ground before the pandemic took hold, this is good news for those that qualify. But what about cannabis employees that have already been laid off amid the pandemic? What supports can they fall back on?

Things are changing quickly, with each day bringing new announcements and shifts in strategy, but, for now, it seems the federal government is looking to streamline the process for laid off workers through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), introduced earlier this week. 

The aid will provide $2,000 per month, for four months, and applications should be online by early April. Those who have been temporarily laid off, or are under quarantine or are looking after sick family members, all qualify. As do contract workers, the self-employed, and those who are still working but have seen a reduction in their earnings. 

“It’s going to replace EI as a new kind of all-encompassing program. Anyone that’s been temporarily laid off is eligible for that program,” Goldstein Law Firm’s Jeff Goldstein tells The GrowthOp.

Goldstein says unless temporary layoffs are outlined in the original employment contract, those who have been temporarily laid off during the pandemic are entitled to severance. 

“Those employees are entitled to a full severance if they wish,” Goldstein says. “So an employee that maybe is unhappy with their workplace, or they don’t want to return back to that work after this passes, or they don’t have confidence that that employer will still be operating — they can choose to consider the layoff a termination and then seek to negotiate a severance pay and end the relationship with that employer.”

Achkar Law’s Christopher Achkar adds that, in general, layoffs should not be happening right now.

“These employers can actually be sued for laying people off if the employment agreements don’t originally allow for those layoffs to happen to begin with,” he says. 

Achkar says, in the months ahead, there could be a flood of lawsuits going through the courts in relation to terminations during the pandemic. But that could be avoided if employers begin hiring back their workers.

“(Businesses that are) Laying people off without really making sure they have the rights to lay them off, are opening themselves up to a lot of liability when it comes to constructive dismissal claims,” Achkar says.

Kevin Shimmin, a national representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, says the current moment is an opportunity to seek more employee protections in the cannabis industry.

The UFCW is currently attempting to organize a union with employees at Ontario-based licensed producer WeedMD, a process that began earlier this month after complaints about health and safety issues, Shimmin told The GrowthOp.

He says in the past year the UFCW has found “tremendously dangerous” working conditions in greenhouses in the cannabis industry.

“There are big health and safety problems and now COVID-19 is just adding to that,” he says, pointing to examples of pesticides being sprayed with workers present, elevated carbon monoxide levels in grow rooms, and overcrowding. Shimmin says there are also concerns about dispensary workers.

“The owners of some of these dispensaries have not rolled out a proper pandemic plan to make sure employees are protected,” he says. “It’s a very tough situation.”

Achkar questions whether the federal government could take increased measures to support those who have lost their jobs during this COVID-19 crisis.

“Is this enough? No, it’s not,” he says, of the CERB. “There should be more help made available to employees. Is there more that can be done? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know what kind of funds are available. 

“It’s a time of despair for a lot of people.”

 

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