Precarious Workers

Precarious workers and protections in case of a serious illness

Characteristics of precarious jobs

One of the greatest divisions in the labour market is between jobs with job security and some basic benefits, where workers’ rights are respected, and jobs with little job security with few or no benefits.

Vulnerable, low-wage, or temporary replacement workers, as well as those working involuntarily part-time work, may experience high job insecurity. In addition, working conditions may not allow workers to qualify for support programs.

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Some of the characteristics that can be found in workplaces with precarious employment are the absence of formal policies on working conditions, the absence of formal human resource management practices, inconsistent or arbitrary human resource decisions and the lack of respect for workers’ rights.

The Act respecting labour standards is the most important piece of legislation concerning the rights of non-unionized workers. It covers a wide range of issues, including the obligations of employers and employees with respect to wages, hours of work, paid leave, absences, harassment and much more.

Sick Leave and the Act respecting labour standards

Your right to sick leave, that is, the ability to be absent due to illness with full respect for your rights and without reprisal, is set out in the Act respecting labour standards.

Here is how the CNESST describes the right to sick leave:

A worker may be absent for an extended period owing to an accident or an illness. They may be absent for 26 weeks without pay over a 12-month period if they are ill or had an accident that is not related to their work and means that they are unable to work.

“They must advise their employer of their absence as soon as possible.
“If warranted by the circumstances, the employer may ask them to provide an official document attesting to the reasons for the absence and the length of the absence.”

The Act regarding labour standards is overseen and administered by the Commission des normes, de l’équité et de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST). Its website provides important information, and all workers will find it useful to familiarize themselves with their rights under the law.

Income replacement and employment insurance

Group insurance is rarely available in workplaces with very precarious employment. This means that EI sickness benefits are the primary financial safety net for workers with precarious employment status.

See the section on EI sickness benefits.

Loss of Income and Social Assistance

It is not uncommon for workers with very precarious employment status to fail to qualify for EI sickness benefits and to have to rely on social assistance. You should not be ashamed to use it.

See the section for complete information.

Other considerations for workers with precarious status

If your job offers very few benefits or protections, here are several considerations to keep in mind:

1. You have rights.

It is important to know them. These rights are primarily set out in the Act regarding labour standards. You also have occupational health and safety rights (the Act respecting occupational health and safety and the Act respecting industrial accidents and occupational diseases), the right to equitable pay for work typically performed by women (Pay Equity Act) and the right to unionize (Labour Code).

The CNESST website offers clear information on the Act respecting labour standards, your rights and your employer’s obligations. It is always helpful to have accurate information before discussing any issues with your employer.

2. There are organizations that provide information and assistance about workers' rights.

There are excellent community groups that help employees who are having difficulties with their employers. They are very knowledgeable about labour and employment law and have experience in the complex situations that workers may face and are always worth consulting.

3. There are basic practices to protect yourself.

Precarious work means that no one else and no outside organization like a union protects you. You will have to protect yourself. But there are some basic practices that will help you defend your rights.

3.1 Write down all the information.
Often, precarious workers do not have a written contract. But a verbal contract is legal.

Write down what your employer told you when you were hired, including your responsibilities, hours of work, date of hire and any other information about how the job was described to you.

Keep track of your work hours and any absences and how you handled them (when you called your employer, who you spoke to, what was said, etc.) In the event of a dispute, your notes will be considered important evidence.

If your employer has you keep timesheets, they are the property of the employer and you may not have access to them in the event of a dispute. Keep your own notebook where you record your hours, absences, and a brief summary of any important events.

It is helpful to have the names and phone numbers of colleagues in case of problems.

All of this information may be important when working out your sick leave with your employer, especially if you have overtime that you can take back.

3.2 Seek help from community groups that specialize in workers’ rights.
These groups often provide consultation. You can also become a member of these organizations.

3.3 Your employer may not be well informed about your rights, but they may want to do the right thing.
Community groups that specialize in workers’ rights can help you strategize on how best to inform your employer of your rights in a way that promotes positive discussions and outcomes.

4. You will need to look after your own financial security.

Sickness benefits only cover 15 weeks of income replacement after a one week waiting period. For a serious illness that lasts longer, the only support beyond EI is private insurance or social assistance.
The idea of finding insurance when wages seem limited can be daunting, but it is possible to find reasonably priced insurance policies. See the section for more information on private insurance.

5. If you need to use social assistance, it is helpful to know some information.

Social assistance is a legitimate need and no one should shame you if you need it. For complete information, see our section.

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