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Emergency Leave in British Columbia: What Employees and Employers Need to Know

Scott Dallen
September 24, 2023

The recent wildfires raging across British Columbia and Canada have caused widespread devastation and disruption, impacting people’s lives and livelihoods. In the face of wildfires or other public emergencies, it is crucial for both employees and employers to understand their rights and obligations when it comes to taking leaves of absence from work.

BC’s employment regime plays a significant role in ensuring both individuals and businesses are protected during unforeseen circumstances. Leave provisions exist to provide employees with the necessary time off work when faced with urgent situations, while ensuring employees can do so without jeopardizing their employment.  

It is important for employers to familiarize themselves with the regulations and guidelines surrounding emergency leave in British Columbia. By understanding the legal regime, employers can effectively support their employees during challenging times while ensuring compliance with legislation and protecting business interests.

This section will explore key aspects of emergency leave in British Columbia, including eligibility criteria, duration of leave, and the responsibilities of both employees and employers.

Types of Emergency Leaves in BC

The BC Employment Standards Act (ESA) provides employees with the right to take unpaid leave from work for a number of reasons related to emergencies, such as natural disasters, medical emergencies, family emergencies, public health crises, or other unforeseen circumstances. These protected-leaves are available for prescribed periods of time set out in the ESA. Types of leaves applicable to emergencies include, among others:

·       Illness or injury leave – Covers situations where an employee is unable to work due to sickness or injury. The leave is paid up to 5 days per year, after which it is unpaid for 3 additional days. Employees must have worked at least 90 days for the employer to be eligible for illness or injury leave.

·       Compassionate care leave – Covers situations where an employee needs time off work to provide care or support to a family member who is terminally ill. The employee is required to provide a medical certificate that the family member is at serious risk of death within 26 weeks, in which case the employee is entitled to take up to 27 weeks of unpaid leave within a 52-week period.

·       Family responsibility leave – An employee can take up to 5 days of unpaid leave in each employment year to help with the care, health, or education of a child in their care under the age of 19. An employee can apply this type of leave to care for the health of any immediate family member.

·       Bereavement leave – In the event an employee suffers the loss of a loved one, they are entitled to 3 days of unpaid leave to attend a funeral or take care of other issues relating to the death.

All these leaves are job-protected, meaning that employees cannot be fired or laid off for exercising their right to take time off. Employers must continue making payments to benefit plans and calculating seniority and other entitlements as if the employee was working normally.

Employees must provide reasonable proof that leave is required, but they are not required to provide a medical note.

The above leaves may apply to employees who are affected by wildfires, either to protect their own safety or to assist family members or their community. Employees should double-check with their employers or an employment lawyer to confirm their eligibility and entitlements to emergency leave.

Do Employees Get Paid While on Leave?

Apart from an employee’s limited sick days, employers in BC have no legal obligation to pay employees who are unable to work as a result of natural disasters, evacuation orders, or other public emergencies. In emergencies such as wildfires, it is the employer’s choice whether and how to support staff financially.

Some employers may offer paid leave, advance pay, or other forms of assistance to employees who are affected by emergencies. While compassionate, such assistance is not required and the scope may vary significantly from employer to employer. In any case, it is critical that employers have defined policies and procedures in place setting out employees’ entitlements in emergency situations.

Navigating the Process: Steps for Employees Requesting Emergency Leave

Employees must follow certain steps to request and obtain the protected leaves discussed above.

·       Communication – Employees should communicate with their employers as soon as possible regarding their circumstances during the emergency. Letting the employer know the timing and duration of the required leave with as much notice as possible will help the employer accommodate the employee’s needs.

·       Documentation – Depending on the type of leave an employee is taking, the employer may ask for proof that the employee is eligible under the Employment Standards Act and that leave is reasonably necessary. For example, if an employee is taking family responsibility leave, they may need to show evidence of the issue requiring their care. While employers are entitled to such proof, the standard is low and an employee need not obtain a medical note from a doctor.

·       Follow-Up – Employees should regularly reevaluate the need for their leave and stay in touch with the employer to update them on an expected return date. If a leave needs to be extended or shortened, employees should inform their employer as soon as possible.

Obligations and Best Practices for Employers

Employers have a duty to accommodate their employees’ needs when taking protected leaves, including during emergencies. By implementing clear emergency leave policies, employers can create a supportive work environment that respects the well-being of employees and the smooth operation of their business.

Where possible, employers may consider accommodating remote work for employees who face uncertainty due to evacuation orders or dangerous conditions in their ordinary routine. In certain circumstances, unreasonable refusal could result in liability for employers.

In general, employers should use caution when exercising discretion or judgment surrounding employee’s choices during an emergency on a case-by-case basis. For example, employees choosing to proactively evacuate or leave the province to work remotely are making informed decisions and may have additional considerations the employer is not aware of. This  underscores the importance for employers to have robust and consistent policies applicable to all employees.

It is also important for employers to maintain open and clear communication with their employees before and during their absence. The employer should work proactively with employees to monitor the emergency and employees’ needs, and to determine appropriate return-to-work plans.

When a protected leave comes to an end, employers must reinstate employees to their former positions or, if reinstatement is not possible, to a comparable position in terms of wage and responsibility.

Know Your Right and Responsibilities

Whether you are an employee facing a personal emergency or an employer seeking guidance on implementing effective emergency leave provisions, it is essential to have the right legal support.

By providing clarity on this topic, we aim to empower individuals and organizations alike to navigate emergency situations with confidence and compassion.

If you need assistance or want to discuss this issue, reach out to us! We want to help!