Year in Review – 2021 Top HR Compliance Stories

Office Workers Crossing the Streets Returning To Work

2021 has been a busy year for those of us tracking changes to HR compliance laws.

As we near the end of the second year of the pandemic, it is clear that COVID-19 has not only changed our day-to day-work, but also the laws governing the workplace.  This includes changes directly in response to COVID-19 – such as mask and vaccine mandates – plus broader discussions regarding sick leave and disconnecting from work.

This year, we have also seen legislative developments in response to Canadians’ increasing awareness of issues facing Indigenous people and persons with disabilities. And Québec has introduced amendments, which affirm the unique nature of that province.

Here is a recap of the top stories in HR compliance for 2021.

COVID-19 Vaccines

COVID-19 has impacted pretty much every workplace – whether employees are required to work from home or to follow safety protocols in the workplace. This year, the focus shifted from physical distancing and mask requirements to vaccines.

In the spring, when vaccine distribution began picking up speed, several provincial governments responded by:

  • requiring employers to provide employees with three hours of paid leave to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine; and/or
  • establishing programs to reimburse employers for wages paid to employees who are absent due to a vaccination appointment or vaccine-related side-effects.

By the fall, the focus shifted from encouraging to mandating people to get COVID-19 vaccines. Governments across Canada began implementing:

  • vaccine mandates, requiring employees in certain industries (e.g., health care, public sector) to be vaccinated;
  • vaccination passports, restricting individual access to certain businesses (e.g., restaurants, entertainment and sporting venues).

Most recently, the federal government announced that it will be amending regulations under the Canada Labour Code to require workers in all federally regulated workplaces to be fully vaccinated.

Sick Leave

Last year, the federal government rolled out a range of benefit programs in response to COVID-19, including the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit. After complaints that the program fell short, British Columbia and Ontario amended their employment standards legislation and implemented reimbursement programs to provide employees with three days of paid sick leave due to COVID-19. Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island also announced funding for COVID-19-related sick leave.

These were temporary fixes in response to the pandemic. However, they sparked a broader discussion regarding the need to add permanent entitlements to paid sick leave.

Currently, three jurisdictions require employers to provide paid sick leave – federal, Quebec and Prince Edward Island (with PEI workers’ entitlement only kicking in after five years of continuous service).

So far, only British Columbia has amended its employment standards legislation – adding a permanent entitlement to five days of paid sick leave after 90 days of employment. This change comes into force on January 1, 2022. In addition, the federal government introduced Bill C-3, which (if passed) will increase paid sick leave from three to 10 days a year – employees will earn one day of leave each month, up to a maximum of 10 days per year.

Disconnecting from the Workplace

In March, the federal government launched a consultation regarding the right to disconnect from work (i.e., should limits be set on work-related e-communications outside of work hours?). With everyone working from home, interest in this topic has only increased.

While the federal consultation has not yet resulted in legislative change, it may have contributed to recent amendments to the Ontario Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA). Ontario Bill 27 amended the ESA to require employers with 25+ employees to develop a “disconnecting from work” policy. (Note: In the first year, employers will have until June 2, 2022 to comply.)

Recognition of Indigenous People

Awareness of the difficulties encountered by Canada’s Indigenous people has finally increased. This likely contributed to the federal government adding a new public holiday – National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to be observed on September 30. Prince Edward Island also added this new public holiday. This means that federal and PEI workplaces must observe the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a public holiday.

While British Columbia did not add the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to its list of public holidays, it did add Indigenous identity to the list of protected grounds in its Human Rights Code. 

Accessibility Laws

While accessibility laws are not new – in 2005, Ontario was the first province to enact legislation aimed at reducing barriers for persons with disabilities – more Canadian jurisdictions moved forward with similar requirements this year.

The federal government passed the Accessible Canada Act in 2019. We are still waiting for accessibility standards, but earlier this year, the federal government published draft regulations with a tentative timeline for implementing accessibility. Private sector employers with 100+ employees will have to prepare and publish accessibility plans by June 1, 2023, while smaller organizations with 10-99 employees will have until June 1, 2024. (See our earlier post.)

British Columbia and Newfoundland & Labrador both enacted accessibility legislation in 2021. These new laws provide the framework for developing accessibility standards, which will require organizations in those provinces to identify, remove and prevent accessibility barriers.

While The Accessibility for Manitobans Act as well as Manitoba’s Employment and Customer Service Standards have been on the books for a few years, Manitoba is seeking feedback on a proposed Information & Communications Accessibility Standard.

Saskatchewan launched a consultation regarding upcoming accessibility legislation.

And circling back to Ontario, the government is seeking feedback on additional accessibility standards for health care, education (K-12) and post-secondary education.


Québec introduced a couple of Bills this year that highlighted the unique nature of employment law in La Belle Province.

Per our post, Bill 96, which is aimed at strengthening the use of French in Québec, includes numerous changes for workplaces:

  • requiring employment documents, such as offers of employment, transfer or promotion, employment contracts, application forms and training documents, to be written in French;
  • expanding protections from reprisal for employees who only speak French and adding dispute resolution procedures;
  • adding a protection from discrimination and harassment because an employee only speaks French;
  • requiring group benefits policies to be written in French.

Another interesting Québec development is Bill 14, which enacts an entirely new Act to mirror certain labour standards requirements for trainees (i.e., individuals who are job shadowing or engaged in other activity required as part of a professional practice or a program at a secondary, vocational, college or university institution). For example, the new Act provides trainees with entitlements to public holidays, sick leave, and protection from psychological harassment. Keep in mind that these requirements will apply to trainees regardless of where they do their workplace training, where the employer has residence, domicile, enterprise, head office or office in Québec.

And that’s a wrap for 2021. Happy Holidays!

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About the author

Lesha Van Der Bij
Lesha Van Der Bij CEO and Co-Founder, Compliance Works
Lesha is a senior lawyer who spent many years of her legal career at major Canadian law firms reviewing legislation and creating easy-to-understand summaries for clients.

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