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Job Loss during COVID-19: Government Subsidies and Benefits

Many businesses and workers have suffered severed financial loss as a result of mandatory business closures resulting from COVID-19. Fortunately, the government of Canada and the province of Ontario have stepped up by introducing a number of programs to help alleviate the negative impact of the economic downturn. In this blog post we will highlight a few of the government programs designed to assist workers who have been impacted by the pandemic and also commercial landlords and tenants.

First, Am I Entitled to Notice or Severance from my Employer?
The Employment Standards Act (ESA) sets out the minimum obligations of employers following the termination of employment, including notice of termination (or pay in lieu thereof) and severance pay obligations. If you have an employment contract that does not specify that your “ESA entitlements represent your full entitlements on the without cause termination of your employment,” you may be entitled to common law notice, which provides for more generous notice requirements.

Whether or not you are entitled to common law notice is based on the terms of your employment contract; and the amount of such notice is dependent on each unique set of circumstances. Terminated employees often contact us advising that “they were the best employees” and they consistently received positive performance reviews. We often hear from terminated employees “how can my employer terminated me and then post a job opening for my former position right away?” These concerns are actually not relevant to the severance equation. As an employees can resign at any time for no reason, any employer can terminate an employee without cause at any time for no reason so long as it is not a discriminatory reason. As a result, your strong performance or the fact that your job may be replaced by another candidate, is not relevant in determining the severance calculation.

The more relevant factors in determining severance entitlements under the common law in Ontario, include but is not limited to: (i) the age of the employee at the date of dismissal – with employees of more advanced age typically entitled to greater notice periods; (ii) the duration of service in the employment, with longer-service employees entitled to more enhanced severance pay; (iii) the seniority or position of the employee, with greater notice periods being awarded to more senior employees with specialized positions; (iv) and the availability of similar employment. During COVID-19, the job market has frozen and it will be most challenging to secure a new job following a termination of employment, entitling the employee to greater severance pay.

The government has also introduced programs to protect workers and businesses that have been negatively impacted by the global pandemic. More details on these programs are provided below:

Benefits for Employers and Employees
Millions of employees have been terminated or temporarily laid-off due to business closures resulting from COVID-19. If you have been terminated from your employment as a result of COVID, you may be entitled to enhanced severance pay given the difficulty you are likely to confront in obtaining replacement employment in a timely manner given the economic downturn. You can contact our employment law firm for a free consultation to discuss your employment rights.

The government of Canada has introduced a number of programs to assist employers and employees that have suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada Emergency Response Benefit
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is available to workers (i.e., employees or independent contractors) who have lost their job on account of COVID-19. The Benefit is available to workers:

  • Residing in Canada, who are at least 15 years old;
  • Who have stopped working because of reasons related to COVID-19 
  • Who had employment and/or self-employment income of at least $5,000 in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to the date of their application; and,
  • Who have not quit their job voluntarily.

The amount of the CERB benefit is $2,000.00 per month for a period of four (4) months.

Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy
The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy is available to employers whose revenues have decreased by at least 30% as a result of COVID-19. The benefit covers up to 75% of employee wages on the first $58,700 employees earn, or up to $847 per week. The program covers wages from March 15 to June 6, 2020 – and may be (but hopefully will not be required to be) extended should the pandemic continue on for longer than anticipated.

The purpose of the CEWS is to enable employer’s to re-hire workers or at least refrain from laying-off workers due to the economic downturn. To receive the wage subsidy, the employer must be eligible as defined by the benefit, which includes various types of entities (sole proprietor, partnership, corporation, non-profit, etc.) that has suffered an eligible revenue reduction (i.e., 15% revenue decline in March 2020 and 30.0% thereafter for April and May 2020).

Canada Commercial Rent Assistance Program
The Commercial Rent Assistance Program was introduced by the government of Canada to reduce rent for small businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19. The program will provide non-repayable loans to commercial property owners to cover 50.0% of three monthly rental payments for the months April, May, and June 2020. The loans will be forgiven if the property owner agrees to reduce the small business tenants rent by 75.0% during the loss period. The small business tenant will then cover the 25.0% remaining rent.

To be eligible to benefit from the program, eligible businesses will have to pay less than $50,000.00 in monthly rent and have seen their revenues decline by 70.0% as a result of COVID-19 during the three-month period.

If you are an employer or employee residing in Ontario and have questions regarding the governments new benefit programs to assist your business during the economic downturn causes by COVID-19 we would be happy to provide you with guidance. In addition, commercial landlords and small business tenants may require an understanding and interpretation of the Commercial Rent Assistance program to ensure it is implemented in accordance with the benefits parameters.

At Goldstein Law, we practice employment law, commercial leasing, and real estate litigation disputes. We are well-positioned and have the expertise to advise our clients on matters arising out of the COVID-19 crisis.

Force Majuere & Frustration of Contract In Commercial Leases

Force majeure is a French term – it means “major or superior force.”  It is an unforeseeable event that is outside of the control of the parties. It is a type of contractual provision that you will find across contracts, including in many commercial lease agreements. The clause is included to let a party off-the-hook when something extraordinary happens. Something that makes it impossible to do the thing they thought they could do when they entered into the contract. The common thread is that of the unexpected. Something beyond regular human foresight and skill.

When reviewing your commercial lease agreement, you must look at the Force Majeure (“FM”) clause in the context of COVID-19 as it relates to your [in]ability to continue operating your business.  Thousands of commercial tenants are now confronted by huge cash flows issues with revenue ground to a halt and ongoing liabilities (including lease payments) that they are unable to fund. As a result, one of the options for these tenants may be to invoke the FM clause in their commercial lease agreement. 

It important to review the specific language of the FM clause in your commercial lease agreement. Some FM clauses say that such a scenario only applies if “performance of obligations under the contract becomes impossible.”  That means it is not physically possible for the party to do the thing that was set out to do when the contract was entered.   The impact of COVID-19 on your specific business is a key consideration to determine whether it makes continued operation impossible (i.e., schools, restaurants, and other non-essential business that are subject to mandatory government closure) or more difficult to perform but still possible to operate. Can the tenant and its employees still gain access to their premises to retrieve files and/or laptops in the event access to the building is restricted?

You must consider what types of events will trigger a FM based on the wording of the lease. Some contracts may be silent on this.  Others will be specific – naming specific events that constitute FM (e.g. flood, strike, fire, or ‘Act of G-d,’ etc.).  The unifying thread of an ‘Act of G-d’ is an uncontrollable event that was not foreseen at the time the contract was entered into.  When the contract was negotiated may be critical. For instance, some contracts may expressly stipulate “pandemics” in FM clauses. Especially those that were negotiated around the time of the SARS virus. 

The determination as to whether COVID-19 is considered an FM event is based on how that term is defined in your contract. 

In many cases, parties to a contract could reasonably argue that they could not foresee the pandemic at this scale occurring at the time the contract was entered into.   On the other hand, just because it is more economically difficult for the party to perform the agreement, the simple fact that the event has caused a constraint on profitability, it may not be enough to trigger the FM clause.

If it is Physically Possible To Continue To Operate My Business But It Will Be Extremely Costly – What Are My Choices?

Do I have to pay my contractual obligations or just pay damages for breach of contract?  There is a well-recognized ability in the case law that it may be more economical for a party to an agreement to cease performing an agreement and breach the contract, rather than continue performing and lose money – this is often referred to as an ‘efficient breach.’   The counter-party in the breach of contract can be made whole, whereas the breaching party will minimize its losses by ending the contract at that time.

A key consideration is if a party breaches a contract with another party – that may impact the counter-parties ability to perform its other contractual relationships, which could lead to a cascade of breached contracts with third-parties.  Those other parties could potentially bring a claim against the initial breaching party based on tort law principles.  

Whatever industry you operate in, your company must consider how they will continue their business in the face of COVID-19.  Parties should take into account commercial leasing considerations and review their leases to determine what rights and obligations they have in light of COVID-19.

What Happens If You Do Not Have an FM Clause in Your Contract? Frustration of Contract

You may be able to rely on the doctrine of frustration of contract. Frustration is the occurrence of an unforeseen event that causes a radical change in performance of contract. This radical change makes performance under existing circumstances impossible, impractical or frustrates the original purpose of the agreement. The onus would be on the party alleging frustration of the contract to prove these elements.

According to the Supreme Court case Naylor Group Inc. v Ellis-Don Construction Ltd., the doctrine is applied where, “a situation has arisen for which the parties made no provision in the contract and the performance of the contract becomes ‘a thing radically different from that which was undertaken by the contract.’ The result of a successful frustration claim is that the contract is deemed frustrated and all obligations are extinguished as of the date of the supervening event.

If you have any questions with respect to your commercial lease and your rights and obligations in the face of COVID-19, it is important that you speak with qualified legal counsel to discuss the same. 

Breach of Real Estate Deal By Sellers

We represent defaulting and non-defaulting sellers and buyers in breach of contract claims relating to real estate agreements of purchase and sale.  We have found that a number of sellers will sign an Agreement of Purchase and Sale, and later decide to change their mind and not sell.  If the prospective purchaser does not agree to sign a Mutual Release, which releases all parties from future claims and actions against one another, the seller could be exposed to a claim for breach of contract.

Sellers may wish to terminate an Agreement of Purchase and Sale if they have entered into the agreement prior to a general price increase in the market.  In such a scenario, the sale price of the property may be below the current market value of the home.  As such, the seller will not wish to sell their property at a price lower than the market. Accordingly, the seller will attempt to default on their agreement, hoping that the buyer does not seek recourse. Buyers of these properties, intending to close the transaction and experience an immediate capital appreciation, will pursue sellers for all losses that are a reasonable and natural consequence flowing from the breach of contract.

With a recent downturn in the Toronto residential housing market, buyers are now walking away from their deposits after they have entered into Agreements of Purchase and Sale, and they may be unable to recoup the same unless through a Mutual Release, Court Order, or the closing of the home.  When you are embroiled in a real estate dispute, it is advisable to call a lawyer that understands the standard form documentation that governs real estate transactions in Ontario, and how to protect your rights.