Many of us have adapted during the pandemic from commuting to office jobs to working from home. We’re all too familiar with taking meetings from dining tables or bedrooms, often while trying to juggle parenting or other responsibilities. Even when the workday is over, it can be hard to genuinely switch off. The temptation or expectation to check emails is often too great. It seems clear that the pandemic has blurred the lines between work and home even further than they already were. 

A new piece of legislation has been passed in Ontario which amends various statutes with respect to employment and labour matters. It is important for both employers and employees to be aware of the developments. One key change is the addition of requirements relating to disconnecting from work. Ontario is the first jurisdiction in Canada to introduce such a change.

What is the Working for Workers Act?

On December 2, 2021, the Working for Workers Act 2021 received royal assent and became law in Ontario. It amends a range of other statutes, including the Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act 2009, the Employment Standards Act 2000, the Fair Access to Regulated Professions and Compulsory Trades Act 2006 and the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1990.

The new Act aims to better protect, support and attract workers to Ontario. As the nature of work has changed, the Government has re-examined the laws governing work and the programs supporting workers. The Government has stated that the new measures aim to position the province as “a first mover in charting the path forward as the way people work changes”.

Monte McNaughton, the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, established the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee to provide recommendations to shape the future of work in the province. The Committee’s mandate was to provide recommendations to position Ontario as the best place in North America to recruit, retain and reward workers.

Many of the changes introduced by the new Act were informed by recommendations made by the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, based on their consultations with employers, employees and unions.

What problem does the right to disconnect aim to address?

The Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee’s November 2021 report on the future of work for Ontario identified that work-life balance has become an important factor in retaining employees. Given the aim to make Ontario a top destination with a world-class workforce and talent supply, the Committee recommended introducing the right to disconnect in order to:

  • protect employees’ ability to balance personal and work obligations;
  • foster a culture of work-life balance; and 
  • emphasize Ontario’s commitment to supporting mental health.

Minister McNaughton said:

Ontario cannot be a province where people burn out from endless work and family time comes last. We need to give our workers a break. It seems the people of Ontario agree. A recent public opinion poll revealed that 95% of people in Ontario support the right to disconnect from workplace devices. This seems only fair. No one should be on call 24 hours a day. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has been to put our health and safety first, and that includes our mental health.

What does the right to disconnect entail?

The new Act amends the Employment Standards Act 2000 by inserting a new Part requiring some employers to have a written policy on disconnecting from work. 

Which employers require a policy on disconnecting from work?

The legislation requires employers that employ 25 or more employees, on January 1 of any year, to have a written policy on disconnecting from work. 

What does the policy on disconnecting from work need to contain?

The policy, which must be in place for all employees, needs to be with respect to disconnecting from work. That phrase is defined 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 legislation does not provide details of what the policy needs to contain. As such, organizations have leeway in the wording of the policy. However, it must contain such information as may be prescribed in regulations. The Government has said that policies could include, for example, expectations about response time for emails and encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they are not working. 

The policy must include the date the policy was prepared and the date any changes were made to the policy.

What is the deadline for preparing a policy on disconnecting from work?

The policy must be in place before March 1. However, as a transitional measure for 2022, employers that meet the 25-employee threshold on January 1, 2022, have until June 2, 2022, to have a written policy in place. 

An employer must provide a copy of the written policy with respect to disconnecting from work to each employee within 30 days of preparing the policy or, if an existing written policy is changed, within 30 days of the changes being made. An employer shall also provide a copy of the policy to a new employee within 30 days of the day the employee becomes an employee of the employer.

An employer needs to retain or arrange for the retention of every written policy on disconnecting from work required under the legislation for three years after the policy ceases to be in effect.

Contact Haynes Law Firm in Toronto for Assistance with Employment Law Issues

Haynes Law Firm helps employers and employees throughout Ontario achieve effective solutions to legal issues and conflict management in employment law. Haynes Law Firm can guide your organization through this developing area of the law. For example, if you require assistance drafting a policy on disconnecting from work or ensuring that your policy meets all applicable requirements, contact us online or call us at 416.593.2731.