Employees, employers shouldn't forget human rights during pandemic: commission

With the Northwest Territories recording its first confirmed case of COVID-19 over the weekend, the chair of the territory's human rights commission is urging residents and employers to follow the directives of the chief public health officer — but to also keep human rights in their mind when they consider how to deal with vulnerable employees.

The Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission intends to put out directions to employers this week, said the commission's chair Charles Dent. Front and centre in its messaging: don't forget that many groups will suffer disproportionately from the impacts of the pandemic.

"Indigenous people, racialized people, people with disabilities, older people living alone or in instititutions, or people with low wage employment or no employment tend to be more disproportionately impacted," said Dent. "We want everybody to pay attention to that."

He gave the example of vulnerable groups that tend have low-paying, "precarious" jobs with little to no benefits.

We want everyone to remember that we still have human rights obligations while we ensure public health and safety. - Charles Dent, chair, N.W.T. Human Rights Commission

"For them to have an interruption in work is more of an impact than somebody who, say, works for the government of the Northwest Territories."

Dent is asking the territorial government, along with other actors, to pay close attention to the impact on these groups, and to respond accordingly.

'We're hoping that people will be sensitive'

When asked specifically about how the territory's Human Rights Act addresses pandemics like COVID-19, Dent said that employers must accommodate disabilities to the "point of undue hardship."

Submitted by Charles Dent

"So if somebody has COVID-19, that means they have a disability, because illnesses are covered under disability. Or if they have to look after a family member who has COVID-19, that would bring in the family status, perhaps."

Dent noted that direction from the territory's chief public health officer must be followed, and following that direction is the "most important thing."

However, he also said that "employers need to be careful to understand that just because there's a pandemic, you don't get to make rules that may be contrary to the Human Rights Act," such as firing an employee that needs to take care of a sick family member, for example.

In regards to an employer not following recommendations for social distancing within their workplace, Dent said that it "might" be grounds for a complaint.

"Every circumstance needs to be looked at as an individual situation," he said. 

"But the bottom line is that in times of crisis, like this pandemic, when the chief public health officer provides direction, we expect everybody's going to follow that direction."

The commission's offices have been closed in order to minimize social contact during the pandemic, but Dent urged anyone with questions to contact the office at 1-888-669-5575. If they are unable to respond to your call immediately, he said, leave a voicemail and they will follow up.

"We're all going to face difficult decisions coming up. We want everyone to remember that we still have human rights obligations while we ensure public health and safety."