Employers’ duty to accommodate employees: the bright side of covid-19

Vanessa Friesen

In Canadian employment law it is well established that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees’ protected characteristics. The employer must accommodate the employee up to the point of undue hardship to the employer. Protected characteristics include things like religion, family status and disability. Workplace accommodation could mean an employer allowing employees time off to attend religious services or to take care of family emergencies. Unless a job requirement is a bona fide occupational requirement, meaning it is not possible to modify the job so the employee can carry out necessary tasks, the employer must accommodate an employee’s protected characteristics. 

In practice, however, employees with disabilities often have difficulty convincing employers to accommodate their needs so they can perform their jobs. For example, an employee might ask to work from home because their disability prevents them from climbing stairs and the workplace has no elevator. Or an employee might ask to work from home because they have severe allergies which result in migraines if they go to work in person. Employers have sometimes refused these requests, saying it was not possible to allow employees to work from home.

What does this have to do with covid-19?

Covid-19 has shown us that many jobs can be done from home. Millions of Canadians have worked from home since the pandemic began in March of 2020. This could be used to support a legal argument that it would not cause undue hardship for an employer to allow an employee to work from home, if the employee’s disability makes it difficult for them to attend the workplace in person and the job can be done remotely.

In summary

Covid-19 has undoubtedly caused turmoil and financial trouble for people around the world. However, there is also a bright side to the pandemic: the “new normal” of many people working from home could be used to help people with disabilities receive workplace accommodation. This would allow more people to enjoy productive, independent, self-reliant lives.