A message from Commissioner Govender

Human rights are never more important than in times of crisis. It is in these challenging times that it becomes critical for us all to place human rights at the centre of our decision making.

See the Commissioner’s Full Policy Statement on Human Rights During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Translations of the statement are available in:

Chinese (Simplified) | Chinese (Traditional) | Filipino  | Persian | Punjabi | French

What we’re doing

BCOHRC issued extensive policy guidance to employers, landlords, service providers and individuals about how to ensure that human rights are protected and balanced against urgent public health priorities. This guidance was made available in seven languages including American Sign Language.

We regularly updated public responses to frequently asked questions about addressing human rights issues during the pandemic. And we engaged across government in targeted ways to support the protection of human rights during this fast-changing public health emergency.

Policy Recommendations

Our COVID-19 work has included issuing policy recommendations to correctional services, working with public health officials to protect the safety of people affected by domestic and gender based violence and ensuring the needs of the disability community are met in the communication of critical public health information.

These are some of the key recommendations emerging from our COVID-19 human rights work:

  1. Extend rental supports beyond September to avoid dramatically increasing homelessness in fall.
  2. Review the current Temporary Rental Supplement application process for accessibility and apply unallocated funding to support renters with reduced income to pay current rent and rent debt.
  3. Continue to purchase existing assets and build housing, including safe, accessible units for people with disabilities, Indigenous people, racialized people, women, seniors and gender diverse people. This includes ensuring housing is no or low barrier and that SROs permit guests, and, where housing is not available, it means ensuring people can shelter in place by ensuring encampments have adequate access to water, hygiene, harm reduction and other services and that municipalities rescind bylaws that criminalize and displace unhoused people.
  4. Target recent federal funding and matching provincial funding to support TransLink and BC Transit in providing increased transit service in low-income neighbourhoods.
  5. Maintain the increase of $300/month to income and disability assistance rates permanently.
  6. Support and fund community-led food hubs and emergency home food delivery systems in collaboration with municipalities, with no barriers such as income or address verification.
  7. Include the provision of paid sick leave within B.C.’s employment standard laws.
  8. Enhance sick leave provisions within the Public Service Agency from 75 per cent of pay (or less in some circumstances) to 100 per cent to support workers in staying home when they are sick.
  9. Re-invest in the provincial government’s universal childcare commitments as a critical measure.
  10. Target recovery measures to support workers in populations overrepresented in job losses.
  11. Continue the removal of the MSP wait period and expand full health coverage for all.
  12. Investigate the intersection of the COVID-19 and the opioid public health crises, ensure safe substances and harm reduction supplies are accessible and enhance targeted support measures.
  13. Continue enhancing and increasing funding for community-based mental health services for children, youth and adults.
  14. Ensure the provision of internet access by advocating for increased federal support and funding, and through targeted provincial action such as a technology benefit for people living in poverty, especially given how much our interaction and access to essential services has moved online during the pandemic.

Frequently Asked Questions

During the COVID-19 pandemic, questions about the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees, tenants and landlords and residential care providers such as seniors homes may arise. We have provided the following information to guide your understanding about human rights and responsibilities during this time.

If you would like a printable PDF version of the Frequently Asked Questions, you can find that here.

  • Is it illegal for my employer to terminate me if I can’t work because of COVID-19?
    • On March 23, 2020, the Government of British Columbia passed Bill 16, which changed the Employment Standards Act. Among other things, Bill 16 allows for job-protected leave without pay for employees in various circumstances relating to COVID-19, including where an employee is quarantined, in isolation, needs to be away from work to care for children because of day care or school closures or is impacted by COVID-19 related travel restrictions. These new measures are retroactive to January 27, 2020. For further information see here and the full text of the bill here.
    • The B.C. Human Rights Code is another important law that protects your rights as an employee. Under the B.C. Human Rights Code, an employer may not discipline or terminate an employee who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is perceived to have COVID-19 (because, for example, they are exhibiting certain symptoms). Similarly, an employer may not discipline or terminate an employee if they are unable to come to work because medical or health officials have quarantined them or have advised them to self-isolate and stay home in connection with COVID-19.
    • The federal government has put in place an emergency order under the Quarantine Act. It applies to all travellers arriving in Canada, including essential workers, and requires mandatory isolation for those with symptoms and mandatory quarantine for those without symptoms. Click here for the latest travel restrictions, exemptions and advice. Failure to comply with this order is an offence and law enforcement officials can give out tickets with fines ranging from $275 to $1,000. All people in Canada should, as much as possible, stay home.
    • In these circumstances, workplace policies that deal with absenteeism must not negatively affect employees.
  • Can my employer lay me off if there is no work to do because of COVID-19? Does my employer sill have to pay me?
    • The B.C. Human Rights Code does not require employers to pay employees if they are not working or if there is no work for them to do because of the impacts of COVID-19. It is not discrimination under the B.C. Human Rights Code if an employer needs to lay off employees because there is no work for them to do as a result of the impacts of COVID-19.
    • The B.C. Employment Standards Act sets out rights and obligations regarding payment of wages, temporary layoffs, constructive dismissal and termination. Visit the B.C. Ministry of Labour website for more information.
    •  See response to Question 3 for information about accessing federal and provincial benefits in this situation.
  • What supports are in place if I am out of work or my income is significantly reduced because of the pandemic?
    • The British Columbia government has announced that it is offering emergency assistance to eligible individuals who have lost income as a result of COVID-19. For further information, see the Province of British Columbia’s website here.
    • This includes providing a new rental supplement for those facing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19. For further information, click here. The Residential Tenancy Branch encourages tenants to keep all documentation and communication with the landlord during this time to avoid risk to the tenant if disputes arise later.
    • This also includes support with other costs, like BC Hydro and ICBC which offer deferral of monthly bill payments. For further information, see the Province of British Columbia’s website here.
    • In addition, the federal government has announced financial measures to directly support individuals and businesses. See more information here.
    • Employees who cannot work because of COVID-19 may be entitled to sick leave benefits, disability leave benefits or other leave benefits that may be available from their employer or under the federal Employment Insurance (EI) program. Eligible workers with no paid-leave benefits or limited paid-leave benefits through their employers can apply for up to 15 weeks of EI benefits if they cannot work for medical reasons. The federal government has announced that it is eliminating the waiting period entirely for workers quarantined due to COVID-19. Visit the Economic and Social Development Canada’ website for more information.
    • Employees also have other rights under the Employment Standards Act regarding termination (e.g. severance and notice of termination). Visit the B.C. Ministry of Labour website for more information. Employees may also have rights regarding termination under common law.
    • For those who are currently accessing provincial income or disability assistance and are eligible to receive EI or other federal emergency assistance, the provincial government has committed to allow you to keep that income without it being clawed back off your monthly cheque. If you are not eligible for federal income support, the provincial government will increase your monthly amount by $300 for April, May and June.
  • Can my employer refuse to let me work because of COVID-19?
    • Employers should ensure any restrictions on employees are consistent with up to date information from medical and Public Health officials and are justified for health and safety reasons.
    • An employer should not send an individual employee home or ask them not to work because of concerns over COVID-19, unless the employer’s concerns are reasonable and consistent with information from medical and Public Health officials.
    • Employers also have obligations for workers’ health and safety on the job under Part 3 of the Workers Compensation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Regulation. Visit Worksafe BC’s website for further information.
    • The right to be free from discrimination can be limited under the B.C. Human Rights Code (for example, where health and safety risks are serious and would amount to undue hardship).
  • Does my employer have to accommodate me if I test positive or if I become sick because of COVID19?
    • BC’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner’s policy position is that COVID-19 is a form of disability under the law, as it is a medical condition or perceived medical condition that carries significant social stigma. Discrimination on the basis of disability is prohibited under the B.C. Human Rights Code.
    • Employers have a duty to accommodate employees under the B.C. Human Rights Code in relation to COVID-19, unless it would amount to undue hardship based on cost or health and safety.
    • Employers should also be sensitive to other factors such as any particular vulnerability an employee may have (for example, if they have a compromised immune system).
    • On March 23, 2020, the Government of British Columbia passed Bill 16, which changed the Employment Standards Act. Among other things, Bill 16 allows for job-protected leave without pay for employees in various circumstances relating to COVID-19, including where an employee is quarantined, in isolation, needs to be away from work to care for children because of day care or school closures or is impacted by COVID-19 related travel restrictions. These new measures are retroactive to January 27, 2020. For further information see here and the full text of the bill here.
  • Does my employer have to accommodate me if I need to stay home with my kids or an ill family member?
    • Human rights law in B.C. requires that an employer accommodate an employee’s care-giving responsibilities to the point of undue hardship if the employee’s terms and conditions of employment have changed and that change has resulted in a serious interference with a substantial parental or other family duty or obligation.
    • This duty to accommodate may apply to situations where an employee is suddenly required to work from home (a change to a term or condition of employment) but is unlikely to apply to workers whose terms and conditions of employment have not changed but who no longer have child care available to them as a result of a daycare or school closure.
    • Given these extraordinary times, however, the British Columbia government has amended the Employment Standards Act to provide leave without pay to employees who are unable to work because of a need to care for a child as a result of a daycare or school closure. This means that if you need to take leave for these reasons, your employer cannot fire you for being absent from work. The amendments are retroactive to January 27, 2020.
    • For further information see here and the full text of the bill here.
  • Do I need to get a medical note to support my request for accommodation?
    • On March 23, 2020, the Government of British Columbia passed Bill 16, the Employment Standards Amendment Act (No. 2) 2020 which provides that an employee will not be required to provide a medical note if they need to take a leave related to COVID-19.
    • An employer is, however, entitled to ask an employee for ‘”reasonably sufficient proof”’ that one of the circumstances set out in the bill giving rise to job protected leave exists.
    • ‘Reasonably sufficient proof’ is a concept that is not yet clearly defined in the law.
  • Schools are closed and childcare services are shutting down because of COVID-19. I can’t afford other daycare or time off work to stay home with my kids. Does my employer have to help me? What financial assistance options do I have?
    • The B.C. Human Rights Code does not require employers to provide additional financial assistance to employees who are impacted by COVID-19.
    • However, the British Columbia government has announced that it is offering emergency assistance to eligible individuals who have lost income as a result of COVID-19. For further information, see the Province of British Columbia’s website here.
    • The federal government has announced financial measures to directly support individuals and businesses. See more information here.
  • Can my employer insist that I work despite the current situation with COVID-19?
    • Employers are entitled to expect that employees will continue to perform their work unless there is a legitimate reason why they cannot. An example of a legitimate reason can include situations where it may not be safe for the employee to be at work.
    • In these circumstances, the employer should explore alternative options for how the employee may still continue to perform productive work for the employer (for example, by working from home, working alternate hours or other flexible options). These measures should be applied fairly across all employee categories where the work can legitimately be completed under alternate conditions.
    • For more information, please visit the WorkSafeBC site here.
  • Can I refuse to work if I think my workplace is unsafe because of COVID-19?
    • Employees and employers have rights and obligations under Part 3 of the Workers Compensation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation for workers’ health and safety on the job. The Act and Regulation give workers the right to refuse work that they believe is unsafe for them or another worker. Visit WorksafeBC’s website for more information.
  • Can my employer make me do a medical test for COVID-19 like take my temperature as a condition for working?
    • BC’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner’s policy position is that medical assessments or self-assessments to verify or determine an employee’s fitness to perform job duties may be permissible in these circumstances. However, employers should only seek information from medical testing that is reasonably necessary to the employee’s fitness to perform on the job and or the employer’s duty to protect the health and safety of workers on the job in accordance with occupational health and safety requirements. Visit WorksafeBC’s website for more information.
  • I am a contract worker. Do I have the same rights as employees under the B.C. Human Rights Code related to COVID-19?
    • The right to be free from discrimination in employment under the B.C. Human Rights Code includes full-time and part-time work, volunteer work, student internships, special employment programs, probationary employment and temporary or contract work.
    • The definition of “employee” in the B.C. Human Rights Code is interpreted broadly enough to include contractors, even if they would not be considered “employees” for the purposes of other legislation.
  • I am a tenant who is not working because of COVID-19. What protections exist, if any, if I can’t pay the rent? Can I opt out of my rental agreement if COVID-19 impacts persist?
    • Negative treatment of tenants who have, or are perceived to have, COVID-19, for reasons unrelated to public health and safety, could be discriminatory and prohibited under the B.C. Human Rights Code.
    • The Government of British Columbia has announced that they will be providing a new rental supplement for those facing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19. For further information, click here. The Residential Tenancy Branch encourages tenants to keep all documentation and communication with the landlord during this time to avoid risk to the tenant if disputes arise later.
    • The B.C. government has also banned most evictions during this time, except in exceptional cases where health and safety issues or undue property damage are a reasonable risk. Further, no annual rent increases are allowed during the state of emergency. Existing eviction notices are still valid but there will be no enforcement during this period except in exceptional cases such as where there is risk of violence or destruction of property.
    • The government of British Columbia has also announced that it is offering emergency income assistance to eligible individuals who have lost income as a result of COVID-19. For support with other costs, BC Hydro and ICBC offer deferral of monthly bill payments. For further information, see the Province of British Columbia’s website here.
  • Can residential institutions related to child welfare, youth justice, criminal justice, long-term care, retirement homes, etc. impose restrictions such as limiting individuals from visiting their loved ones?
    • Residential facilities disproportionately house people who identify with protected grounds under the B.C. Human Rights Code, including Indigenous and racialized people, people with disabilities and addictions, elderly people, children and youth and other vulnerable groups.
    • Under the B.C. Human Rights Code, these individuals have a right to be free from discrimination. Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, these individuals have further rights to privacy; liberty and security of the person; the right to be free from arbitrary detention; and cruel and inhuman treatment, subject to reasonable limits.
    • BC’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner and relevant human rights laws recognize the importance of balancing individuals’ rights to non-discrimination and civil liberties with public health and safety, including the need to address evidence-based risks associated with COVID-19. Restrictions such as limiting individuals from visiting their loved ones may be justified for health and safety reasons, particularly if such restrictions are based on up to date information from medical and Public Health officials. However, there may be instances where certain individuals may require accommodations, which could include increased access to phones or Skype for contact with loved ones. Visit the Government of British Columbia’s webpage on COVID-19 for the latest information about supports and restrictions on visitor and other access to government-run or regulated residential facilities.

Disclaimer: This statement does not constitute legal advice. BC’s Human Rights Commissioner encourages individuals and organizations to take universal precautions based on the most current advice from public health officials and to seek legal advice if necessary. The Commissioner continues to monitor the evolving situation and will update this statement on an ongoing basis as needed.

This FAQ is modelled on the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Q&A. The BCOHRC gratefully acknowledges the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s role in developing these questions and answers.