What COVID-19 travel bans mean for Ottawa’s temporary foreign workers – and their employers

Warren Creates
Warren Creates is the head of the immigration law group at Ottawa-based Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall.
Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall.

One of the first measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by the Canadian government – as well as countries around the world – was to tighten international borders by restricting non-essential travel.

The move disrupted the plans of tourists and business travellers alike. But it also caused considerable distress – and sparked several questions – for a critical segment of Ottawa’s workforce: skilled foreign professionals working in Canada on temporary permits, as well as the companies and organizations that employ them.

However, the limits on travel are just one source of stress. Many employers are suspending or scaling back operations as well as cutting costs through temporary layoffs, salary reductions and curtailing their employees’ hours.

It’s a tricky area to navigate, even when dealing with Canadian employees. But in the case of temporary foreign workers, such unilateral moves could be considered a violation of their permit and lead to companies being prosecuted, hit with serious fines and blacklisted from the Temporary Foreign Workers program.

But Warren Creates, the head of the immigration law group at Ottawa-based Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall, has a simple message for employers and temporary foreign workers alike: Don’t panic.

With the help of a skilled specialist who understands how to prepare timely applications with the right supporting documentation, employers can often make the workforce adjustments necessary to keep their business or organization afloat – while positioning themselves to bounce back once the economy recovers.

“Businesses are understandably panicking because they've lost revenue,” Creates says. “But they don’t have to panic that they’re going to lose members of their staff who are temporary foreign workers – we can manage that.”

Here are some of the strategies that Creates says he’s currently sharing with his clients:

Don’t let permits expire

Even if an employer is forced to change the details of their staff’s employment, they should make sure the underlying work permit remains valid.

Application processing times are likely to be substantially altered by the COVID-19 crisis as government officials prioritize emergency cases.

But Creates notes this doesn’t mean that employers and temporary foreign workers need to risk having their permits expire during the pandemic.

Anyone who files an application to extend their work permit before it expires benefits from “implied status,” which allows them to continue working under the same terms and conditions until government officials render a decision.

“It’s a very useful tool that we use to help people,” Creates says.

Contact Service Canada

Employers who need to adjust the employment details of a temporary foreign worker should notify Service Canada.

Creates says the message should be that they’ve been forced to change the terms and conditions of the worker’s employment due to circumstances beyond their control – the COVID-19 pandemic – and that they fully intend to restore the original terms and conditions as soon as they can.

“Employers want to consider their obligations under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, be proactive and give notice of the changes,” he adds.

Help your employees

Temporary foreign workers are eligible for Employment Insurance benefits and may also apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit if they meet the other eligibility criteria. Employers should ensure their employees are aware of these benefit programs.

Creates notes there is a way to reduce the precariousness and vulnerability of temporary foreign workers: Change their status to permanent residency.

“The best thing someone in Canada on a work permit – and their employer – can and should do is transition to permanent resident status as soon as they're eligible to do so,” he says.

In addition to having the right to remain in Canada, permanent residents are not restricted to the terms and conditions of a work permit. This can also benefit employers.

“Job title, job duties, compensation, location – you have flexibility,” Creates says. “A good employer will encourage and help their employees become permanent residents,” he adds, noting that companies play an active role in a temporary foreign worker’s application for permanent residency status by verifying an individual’s hours of work, job duties and other details.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, businesses that tapped into the specialized skills of temporary foreign workers often found themselves with a competitive advantage. When the economy restarts, this labour pool could be more important than ever, making it vitally important for companies to keep their employees properly engaged and onside with government regulations.

“We will need, for a very long time, temporary foreigner workers and permanent residents to come to and settle in Canada to fuel our economy once rejuvenation occurs,” Creates says.