Employment rights: I am a human being, not a machine

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In honour of Labour Day, I thought it would be good to reflect on some of the fundamental employment rights workers have in Ontario: eight-hour work day, overtime pay, vacation pay, holiday pay, breaks and rest periods, health and safety, and many more.

 These rights were not given so easily. Workers had to fight hard to achieve these rights, and fight they did. These achievements are the product of many workers and unions coming together to fight for better working conditions. This is the work of individuals who fought and said, “Enough is enough. I am a human being, not a machine!”

As far back as 1872, workers have been striving for shorter work weeks. Back then, it was the nine-hour movement which started with the Toronto Typographical Union. Presently, workers are fighting for six-hour work days, and 4-day work weeks; Belgium, Scotland, Spain, Japan, and Iceland, and some businesses in Ontario have begun piloting this already. 

The experience of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has also shed on the need for better work life balance. Some workers reflected where they were in life, and came to the conclusion that they wanted to work in order to have a decent life, but not be so dominated by work that they could not enjoy life. Individuals want to work to live, not live to work.

While there are some differences and exemptions based on industry and jurisdiction, the following are the basic rights given to many workers in Ontario. These rights apply to workers regardless of whether they are working full-time or part-time.

8-hour day: The maximum number of hours most employees can be required to work in a day is 8 hours or the number of hours in an established regular workday, if it is longer than eight hours. 

The only way the daily maximum can be exceeded is by an electronic or written agreement between the employee and employer. It cannot exceed 13 hours a day due to Minimum Rest Time protection. 

Overtime pay: Employers have to pay workers overtime pay of at least 1.5 times their regular rate of pay for each hour of work beyond 44 hours a week.

Breaks – 30 minutes every five hours: Workers cannot work more than five hours in a row without getting a 30-minute eating period. If you and your employer agree, you can take the 30-minute eating period as two 15-minute breaks in a five-hour work period. 

Minimum wage: Minimum wage is the amount of money an employer must pay for both full-time and part-time employees. Employers must pay workers at least the minimum wage, no matter how they are paid: hourly, salary, commission, flat rate, or piece rate. The general minimum wage will be $15.50 per hour beginning in October. 

Three-hour shift rule: If you typically work more than three hours and your boss sends you home because there is not enough work, then they must pay you for a minimum of three hours at your regular rate of pay – even if you work less than three hours. The only exception to this rule is if you are sent home because of significant unexpected things beyond the control of your boss (eg. power failure). 

Vacation pay: If you have worked fewer than five years, your vacation pay is at least four per cent of your total wages. If you have worked more than five years at the same place, your vacation pay is at least six per cent of your total wages.

Vacation time (time off work): Workers with less than five years of employment are entitled to a minimum of two weeks of rest/vacation for each 12 months of employment. Some employers may allow vacation time to be taken before the completion of 12 months of employment.

If you have worked five years or more for the same employer, you are entitled to a minimum of three weeks of vacation time for every 12 months of employment.

Holiday pay and holiday premium pay: Workers are entitled to take off the following 9 public holidays: New Year’s Day, Family Day, Good Friday, Victoria Day, Canada Day, Labour Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Boxing Day.

Public holiday pay is calculated based on your wages in the four weeks before the holiday. Visit the Public Holiday Pay Calculator to see how much you should be paid for public holidays.

If you work on one of these holidays, you may be eligible for a substitute holiday. A substitute holiday is when you are given a different day off because you worked on a particular holiday.

Alternatively, if you and your employer agree (electronically or in writing), you can work on the holiday and be paid the premium rate, which is “time and a half” for each hour worked on the holiday. 

Sick Leave: Workers are allowed to take up to three days per year for personal illness, personal injury, or personal medical emergency. 

Prior to 2019, employees were entitled to 10 days by law, with two of those being paid. This is an area which requires improvement; many advocates today are fighting for 10 paid sick days to ensure no worker feels forced to choose between their job, their health, and the health of those around them.

Right to Refuse Unsafe Work: The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) offers workers the legal right to refuse work that they believe is unsafe to themselves or another person. A worker who believes that they are endangered by workplace violence may also refuse work.

A worker is allowed to refuse to work if they have reason to believe that:

  • any machine, equipment or tool is likely to endanger them or another person;
  • the physical condition of the workplace or workstation is likely to cause harm;
  • workplace violence is likely to endanger themselves; or, 
  • any machine, equipment or tool, or the physical condition of the workplace, contravenes the law is likely to endanger themselves or another worker. 

Concluding thoughts

These are the minimum standards in most workplaces in Ontario, but there is plenty of advocacy to be done to improve working conditions for all workers. These rights were not easily given; these rights were achieved when workers came together collectively for a common goal, and Labour Day is an opportunity to celebrate what has been achieved and plan for the future.

  • The content in this article is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind. Ilija Dimeski is an employment and human rights lawyer. Do you have a workplace issue or question about your rights at work? Write to us. Click here to begin.



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