As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ontario’s labour market has experienced significant disruptions and a permanently shifted work landscape. Employers are grappling with redefined work locations, rapidly changing public health standards, and the need for economic revitalization. As part of the province’s recovery scheme, Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour Training and Skills Development, established the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee (OWRAC). The Committee’s mandate is to “provide recommendations to position Ontario as the best place in North America to recruit, retain and reward workers.” Its work centers around three pillars: economic recovery, strengthening Ontario’s competitive position, and supporting workers. Integral to the Committee’s work were community stakeholder consultations involving workers, employers, and unions, which invited submissions by July 31, 2021.
In turn, on October 25, 2021, the Ontario government announced the introduction of Bill 27, Working for Workers Act, 2021 (Act). Incorporating several recommendations made by the OWRAC following community consultations, this Act amends several pieces of provincial legislation including the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA), in an effort to improve protection and support for Ontario’s workers, while maintaining a competitive advantage in attracting leading global talent.
Disconnecting From Work Policy – Amendments to the ESA
Significantly, Bill 27 amends the ESA by introducing a requirement for employers with 25 or more employees as of January 1st of any year to ensure, prior to March 1st of that year, that they institute a written policy for all employees with respect to disconnecting from work. As such, employers who are growing should review the need for this policy on an annual basis and once they surpass 25 employees, implement the policy between January 1 and March 1 of the given year.The Act defines “disconnecting from work” as “not engaging in work-related communications, including emails, telephone calls, video calls, or the sending or reviewing of other messages, so as to be free from the performance of work.” The Policy must include the date it was prepared and the date(s) any changes were made to it. Employers will be required to provide a copy of this Policy to each employee within 30 days of preparing it, or, if an existing Policy is amended, within 30 days of any change(s). The same 30-day window applies to providing new employees with the Policy as well. Notably, employers will be required to retain copies of every Policy for three years after the Policy ceases to be in effect.
While the current draft of Bill 27 does not contain any mandatory content for such policies, the Bill indicates forthcoming Regulations that will prescribe certain elements that must be contained in the Policy. Bill 27 has passed First Reading, and is expected to receive Royal Assent and be passed into law. In terms of compliance, employers would be required to implement a disconnecting from work policy within 6 months of Bill 27 receiving Royal Assent and provide each of its employees with a copy of such policy.
The date the employer would use for assessing whether it has 25 or more employees would be January 1st preceding the date that is six months after the day the Act receives Royal Assent.
Preparation for Employers
Employers should be mindful of these proposed legislative changes and any related regulations that become law. In addition, they should begin to contemplate the content, provision of and training on such policies once they become mandatory. Each sector will inherently require its own unique, informed response to implementing and enforcing a Disconnect from Work Policy, without reprisal or retaliation against any employee who abides by it or insists on its enforcement.
Preparation for Employees
If you are an employee in such a workplace as those described above, it is beneficial for you to be aware of these impending legislative changes. With this in mind, asking your employer for transparency around your expected duties, responsibilities, and hours of work, including any overtime provisions, will assist you in taking advantage of any policy once implemented. If you do not have an employment contract governing your employment relationship, it would be best to get written clarification around these expectations in order for all parties to participate effectively in the required flow of work.
The notion of a policy enabling employees to “disconnect” from work has a myriad of implications, including the flow of operations and businesses, enforcement for employees working in remote and/or hybrid work environments, or those whose jobs inherently require real-time, immediate assistance (thereby making “disconnecting” difficult if not unrealistic). There are several ways in which an employer can foster, encourage, and support employees in disconnecting from work, including having sound policies in compliance with legislation, sufficient training on and awareness of these policies, and a genuine commitment to enforcement. Employees who enjoy a greater work-life balance, and who perceive their employers to be supportive of balanced approaches to work, are often more productive and more committed to their employment. This, in turn, prevents high turnover and the expense of training new staff.
In this Covid-19 era, supporting employee mental health and well-being through a holistic approach to work is more necessary than ever before. Being aware of pending legislative changes around appropriate expectations for employees, including transparency around “normal” working hours, takes on a new importance. The nature of work is shifting. Those workplaces that recognize the changing landscape of employee needs and employer responsibilities, with a long-term vision prioritizing health and well-being, will likely be more successful.
Please contact SpringLaw for any questions or assistance surrounding Bill 27 and Disconnecting from Work Policies.