Many working Canadians have seen changes to their salaries, hours and working conditions over the past year amid the pandemic. Even as provinces announce plans to reopen, workers may face difficult and unexpected issues in the workplace that they feel they are forced to accept, such as returning to work with a different job title.
But in many cases, employees don’t have to accept the changes being thrust upon them, because their employer has effectively ended their employment.
Through my nearly two decades as an employment lawyer, I have helped many employees recognize when their rights have been breached and what recourse they have.
Here are five times you may have been let go from your job without realizing it — and what you can do about it.
1. Your employer changes the terms of your employment
Terms of employment are the job conditions that you and your employer agree to when you start the working relationship. They generally include job title and responsibilities, pay, work hours, attire, benefits and vacation pay, among other things. These terms are sometimes outlined in an employment contract.
Many clients I’ve worked with believe that employers have the right to change the terms of employment as they see fit.
But it’s illegal for your employer to make any significant change to those terms without your permission. Significant changes can include demotion, a shift in duties, lower compensation, a reduction in hours of work or relocation. They can also include a temporary layoff, even if it occurs as a result of an unanticipated event such as the pandemic.
When an employer makes a significant change that negatively impacts an employee’s earnings or working relationship, the employee can treat their job as having been terminated.
This means they can make a constructive dismissal claim and walk away from the company with a full severance package.
READ MORE: How to properly refuse a temporary layoff
Employees can also choose to remain with the employer in spite of changes to their terms of employment. Accepting the changes once, however, likely gives the employer the right to do it again in the future.
2. You are put on an unpaid suspension
A company may decide to suspend an employee without pay in response to allegations of misconduct, including harassment, assault or theft. The suspension may occur while the employer investigates the accusations or as a form of discipline if the investigation reveals that the employee has, in fact, done something wrong.
But an employer does not have an automatic right to suspend employees without pay as a disciplinary measure. There has to be a specific term in the employee’s contract that allows the measure to be applied.
Otherwise, the employee can treat the suspension as a constructive dismissal and claim full severance pay.
3. The company you are working for is sold
If your employer sells the business to another owner through an asset sale (where the company sells its equipment, workspace or systems), your employment is legally terminated. Your employment does not automatically continue with the new owner, as an employee is not an asset that can be bought or sold.
If the purchasing company doesn’t offer employment after the asset purchase, your job is terminated, and your former employer — the business that sold its assets — owes you full severance pay.
If the purchasing company offers you a job with the new entity, but you choose not to accept the position, you are still entitled to a severance package from the company that sold the business, which could be up to 24 months’ pay.
READ MORE: Is that severance offer fair?
If you do accept a job with the new company, be wary of signing an employment contract, which may contain a clause limiting the amount of severance you receive if you are let go. It may also specify an employment start date after the purchase, effectively erasing the years you earned with the previous owner and reducing the size of a future severance package.
Employment lawyers, like the team at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, can review your situation when a company changes hands so that you know what your rights are.
4. You are made to work in a toxic work environment
It’s an employer’s legal duty to ensure their workplace is free of harassment and harm. All Canadians have a basic right to work in a safe and healthy environment. So, what happens when that right is violated?
If you experience any form of discrimination or harassment (verbal, physical or sexual), and the company fails to take appropriate action to eliminate the problem and safeguard your rights, you can escape from that situation with compensation.
An employment lawyer can help you claim a constructive dismissal and secure full severance pay if you find yourself in a toxic work environment. It is not your responsibility to tolerate mistreatment at the hands of either a coworker or a manager.
5. You are sick or injured and cannot return to work
If you’re sick or injured, the best course of action is often to take a leave of absence from your job to recuperate. If you have access to insurance coverage through work (or an individual policy if you’re self-employed), you can claim long-term disability benefits until your health improves and return to your job as you had left it.
If your health doesn’t improve, you may decide to resign due to ongoing medical issues.
This scenario is referred to as a “frustration of contract” and occurs when the relationship between the employer and employee is no longer workable due to forces beyond their control.
In this case, it’s important to talk to an employment lawyer before discussing a resignation with your employer. If your doctor confirms that you can’t go back to work, you can treat this as a termination and still get severance pay.
Do you think you have been let go or fired from your job? Want to find out how much severance you are owed?
Contact the firm or call 1-855-821-5900 to secure assistance from an employment lawyer in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario. Get the advice you need — and the compensation you deserve.
Lior Samfiru is an employment lawyer and partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, one of Canada’s leading law firms specializing in employment law and disability claims. He provides free advice as the host of Canada’s only Employment Law Show on TV and radio.