Case Study: Amazon Warehouse Walkout (Right to Refuse Work)

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Amazon has been in the news recently because some of its workers in the US had walked out of their warehouses citing safety concerns. Others in Michigan and Chicago are planning similar walkouts.

This lectures examines the issue of right to refuse work in Canada when employees are concerned about the transmission of COVID-19 at their workplaces. This is the second lecture in the last two weeks on this topic.

This lecture is taught by Amer Mushtaq, LL.B., M. Engineering , B.Sc. (Hons.), who is the Principal and Founder of Formative LLP.   Through his YouTube channel, YouCounsel, Amer shares practical advice from his years of legal experience to help anyone access justice and achieve their goals.  Subscribe today to learn more.


Show Notes:


Lecture Slides:

Welcome to YouCounsel.

You may have noticed that Amazon has been in the news lately.  In the United States some of its workers have walked out of their warehouses because they were concerned that there weren’t enough safety measures to protect them from the transmission of Covid-19. We have already posted a lecture on this topic but, because of this recent instance that occurred at Amazon, I thought it was appropriate to revisit this topic again—in light of what is going on in the U.S. with Amazon stores and then talk about the right to refuse work, in general, in Canada.

Please know that this lecture is not legal advice so if you have any specific questions you should contact a lawyer or a paralegal and in this case the Ministry of Labor of your province.

We will talk about Amazon.  We will talk about employer’s safety obligations towards employees in general. Can employees refuse work due to their concerns that they may contract Covid-19 virus? And then what are some of the procedures for refusing to work in Ontario?

This is an article from The Guardian.  It had indicated that this person, Chris Smalls, an assistant manager at one of the warehouses in Staten Island at Amazon had arranged to walk out because of the concerns that there were a few employees who had contracted coronavirus and other employees he believes were not protected. He had arranged to walk out and then he was terminated from his employment.  Amazon states that Mr. Smalls was terminated because he was not following some of the safety policies.  He had come in contact, close contact with a diagnosed associate.  He was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days—which he did not. Mr. Small claims otherwise.  He believes that he was terminated because he had arranged to walk out due to concerns over Covid-19.

Now, I understand, from the news that there are similar walk outs being arranged in Michigan and in Chicago in Amazon warehouses because of the concerns over there. We also know from this article in Reuters that Amazon workers in one facility had gone on strike.  You would know in Italy, it states that parcel and mail delivery is considered essential and has not been halted. But the requirement is that people should stay—employees should stay one meter safety distance and workers should wear face masks and gloves. Now several employees had claimed that the face masks were not—they were using the same face masks for a number of days and were not getting a new face mask each day. These are some of the concerns that have been raised, with regards to Amazon’s operations and as you know, you and I, all of us we have significant deliveries that we receive from Amazon even now it during this time, the operations are ongoing. If Amazon employees are exposed to corona virus, then invariably a lot of consumers who are receiving merchandise from Amazon are potentially at risk too.

The employers obligation with respect to providing a safe work environment in Canada, come from provincial health and safety legislation.  In the case of federal government, federal employees, federal health and safety legislation. Each province has its own health and safety legislation that essentially requires that it is an employer’s job to ensure that its employees have a safe working environment.  It applies to Amazon in Canada, it applies to Wal-Mart, it applies to all bigger employers, it applies to your corner grocery store, your law firms, your factories—every single employer is bound by the applicable legislation for health and safety.

What should an employer do?  Like Amazon?  First of all they need to make sure that they have appropriate Covid-19 protection policies in place and those policies need to be specific to the workplace. For example the policies that would apply to Amazon would be different than a policy that would apply in an office environment and that would be different than the policy that would apply in a retail environment and will be different from a policy that will apply in a production environment  The concern—the underlying concern is that you want to protect your workers your employees from the spread of corona virus, from Covid- 19. But how in your specific environment you will ensure that protection that needs to be considered and made part of a specific policy. Then those policies also should include, what kind of sanitation standards are being followed, so that employees understand what kind of sanitation standards are being used in your employment workplace. Employers should communicate those policies to employees because then employees need to understand what kind of measures their employers are taking to protect them and if they have any concerns then they could raise those concerns with those employers.

Now in fairness to employers, I was looking at what kind of guidelines the Ministry of Labor, at least in Ontario, may have provided for employers to enact those policies or provide guidelines.  Unfortunately, I did not find much information. I googled Covid-19 and Ministry of Labor. I found this page which is Ministry of Labor’s page in Ontario.  It has only one Covid-19 notice which is relating to construction site health and safety during Covi-19.  When you look at this particular pamphlet—this particular information—it again has very generic information about how do you protect yourself on a construction site from Covid-19.  It’s by washing your hands, and sneezing and avoiding high touch area—where possible and things like that. But there isn’t much of a guideline provided by the Ministry of Labor with respect to different kinds of workplaces. Ministry of Labor does not only monitor construction sites but it monitors every single employer. Ideally, there should have been information about health and safety precautions in retail sites and health and safety precautions in industrial sites and what not but unfortunately, I have not found much information.

The other link re corona virus takes you to this link which is information from the Ministry of Health.  Again it’s very generic information which talks about best practices—basically including what are the everyday actions that you need to do and then social distancing of 2 meters. In that situation, obviously, the employers have to do their own work to figure out what may work based upon at least the guidelines (the generic guidelines) that are available—how different kind of scenarios may play out in their workplace and how they’ll go about protecting their employees.

Can employees refuse work if they are concerned? Absolutely yes.  If you, as an employee, believe that you may contract Covid-19 because of improper policies or insufficient policies to protect you in the workplace, then the answer is yes. But your right to refuse work is subject to the occupational safety legislation. It’s not that you can just simply say no, I’m concerned.  You need to look at the specific legislation and see what that legislation say’s about right to refuse work. If you are in a province other than Ontario then you need to look at legislation for your own province and then follow the procedure. With respect to the procedure for refusal to work in Ontario, as I said, I have a separate lecture which I posted a few days ago, that has a bit more detailed information.  Please check that out.

Generally speaking, if you’re concerned you raise the concern with the employer.  The employer is required to investigate and resolve your concerns about the workplace safety. If you, during the time that the employer is investigating and resolving the issue, if you are expected or you’re required to stay home, then the employer is bound to give you your regular wages for that time. If you are not satisfied with the employer’s resolution then you contact the Ministry of Labor. The Ministry of Labor will send an inspector to check the workplace environment and then decide whether the employer is making sufficient or taking sufficient measures or not.

As you can imagine if the number of cases for Covid-19 grows in our country, then obviously, we will have more concerns about right to refuse work in our work place. I noticed that in downtown Toronto a lot of condo development is still ongoing—the buildings are still being built.  I don’t understand how condominium development is considered essential services, but this is something that I noticed personally. I’ve also been to a few grocery stores.  While the grocery stores have enacted certain policies about allowing a certain number of customers to go inside the store, I did not see a lot of measures to protect their employees with respect to providing them masks or gloves or keeping them at all times at a distance of more than 2 meters from its customers.

These are the issues that, unfortunately, will become subject of much debate in the coming days. I suspect we will be visiting this topic again.  Please stay safe.

Thank you for watching.

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