I Spoke Out About Feeling Unsafe At Work During COVID—And Got Fired

Employment experts share advice on how to talk to your boss about returning to the office, and put your personal safety and comfort first

Whether you have lost your job, are trying to survive with reduced work hours or are job hunting for a new or more stable position than your current one, trying to navigate working during COVID-19 has been turbulent, to say the least. And if I could sum up my own pandemic work experience in one word, it would be tumultuous.

In July, I found myself back on LinkedIn hunting for a new job as my contract as a social media manager within the travel industry felt uncertain. In an attempt to pivot, I began interviewing virtually for digital marketing roles. Soon after, I accepted a job with a Canadian company that manages self-storage facilities across the country. What appeared to be a supportive work environment and an opportunity for career advancement during Zoom interviews turned out to be the opposite IRL. The promise of a safe, remote work environment was broken when I was required to come into the office and attend events during my two-week probationary period. Not only was social distancing almost impossible with a good portion of the staff on-site—as many as 20 people in a small, windowless office that felt crowded—masks were also seldom worn by colleagues in common areas. According to the Canadian government’s Preventing COVID-19 in the Workplace directives, employees are advised to “Wear a mask or face covering whenever possible, or where Federal, Provincial or local Municipal bylaws require it” and because the office was located within a public facility, regulations should have applied within the corporate office as well. 

On top of the pandemic-induced workplace stress, my boss made an intrusive comment about my health in relation to my weight during my first week at work. Then, the staff photographer directed profanity at me in an anti-mask fit of rage when asked to wear a mask in an indoor public facility where we were filming (as per the City of Toronto By-Law 541-2020). When I flagged these concerns to my director, he immediately terminated my role, and I was left unemployed during a pandemic seemingly for expressing concerns about my health and safety. Even though the termination of this role was “without cause” which, during a probationary period, is permissible, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged that this was their reaction to my concerns that their own internal HR policies were being violated. 

The probationary period is as much your opportunity as it is an employer’s opportunity to determine fit,” employment lawyer Hermie Abraham told me when discussing my situation. “However, if the workplace was abusive in any way, this is a time to speak to an employment lawyer to understand your rights.” 

When I approached Abraham about what happened, she advised me that, “In your situation, your employer may have breached its legal obligations to you in a few ways including making demeaning comments about your appearance, changing your work arrangements, not providing COVID-19 safeguards, and ending your employment when you raised concerns. Even as a short-service employee, you might have been able to obtain some compensation for your dismissal without having significant legal costs.” As it stands, I’m working with Abraham to weigh out my options and figure out my next step.

Sadly, I can’t be the only one dealing with workplace safety issues during COVID-19. After more than seven months of working remotely, many employers are itching to get employees back into a shared space and are trying to develop plans on how to do so. But, like myself, most employees will no doubt look at that plan with their own set of questions or concerns—and they have every right to do so. For those unsure how to navigate workplace safety during this truly unprecedented time, I spoke to career experts to learn how to advocate for your needs through the interview process, and when approached with a return-to-work plan.

Navigating the job market during COVID-19? Do your research  

Avery Francis, founder and CEO of Bloom, a workplace systems design consultancy, has helped to hire more candidates for roles that have started remotely this year than in office. In working with companies to help with their hiring, system building and workplace advancement structures, she has noticed an increased desire for clarity on job security and remote work plans from employees during this second wave of the pandemic. She has even had potential candidates for roles remove themselves from the interview process when an organization could not provide a clear policy-based strategy on how they are handling remote working and return-to-office plans. Over the last few months, she has worked with candidates who are “leaving their workplace and finding new opportunities because of the uncertainty that the company is operating under” and “are looking to make a move where to where the next steps are certain.” She has seen an increased interest from candidates to work for companies like Shopify who have publicly announced their “work from anywhere” Digital by Design plan.

So, how do you avoid joining an organization whose policies may prove flimsy or problematic? According to certified career strategist Chanèle McFarlane, it is during the interview process that you’ll want to communicate your needs and do as much research as possible on the employer. Just as they’ll be looking through your online presence, you should be searching them on Google and Glassdoor or connecting with past and current employees on LinkedIn, says McFarlane.

To take the onus off prospective candidates having to ask the tough questions about COVID-19-related policies and their workplace health and safety guidelines during the interview process, Francis also recommends that companies develop a living document or to share what they currently know about their return to work plans in the job description.

When starting a new job, Abraham recommends reviewing the employment terms with a lawyer or someone knowledgeable in your network to ensure that the contract will work within your particular situation, and to help you negotiate any required changes. There are also many blogs and employment newsletters that are helpful resources for learning more about your rights and benefits as an employee.

Currently employed and working from home? Figure out a return-to-work plan that you’re comfortable with

As companies have begun to develop flexible work arrangements (such as employees alternating days working in the office) and return-to-work plans, the idea of re-entering a shared space is daunting for many employees. While Francis has noticed that many mid- to large-sized companies have dedicated a member of their human resources team to develop a COVID-19, and the Human Resources Professional Association has compiled guides on both working remotely and returning to work, many businesses are still struggling to understand their employees’ needs. If you feel safer continuing to work remotely, McFarlane recommends preparing a plan in advance for how you will continue to work well remotely with your team and a solutions-oriented list of what you’ll need to continue to work efficiently with colleagues that are back in the office. This list could include the communication tools that enable video chat or instant messaging, or project management tools like Asana or Monday.com that would help your team to work together and meet deadlines while not physically together. Providing a detailed workflow or offering resources to your team on how you can work together efficiently while remote (like this playbook from TalentEd Consulting on “How to shift from a co-located workplace to an all-remote one”) will show your team initiative and hopefully reduce any worries that they may have about your performance being judged if you continue to work from home. 

As far as employers go, Francis recommends that they develop an anonymous feedback tool to allow employees to share their worries and concerns without having to self-identify or disclose personal information.  

“We need to have empathy for this unique and unprecedented time,” said Francis. “It is the first time we are all going through this, and we need to work together to destigmatize conversations around anxiety, depression and mental health at work.” According to the Ontario Humans Rights Commission, employers must accommodate employees as it relates to their health, mental health or family status. There has also been an amendment to the Employment Standards Act, 2000, S.O. 2000, c. 41 for the duration of the pandemic that entitles employment protection and legal recourse should you require infectious disease emergency leave. “If an employee needs time away from work to deal with stress, depression or any illness,” says Abraham, “there would be requirements from the employers perspective to accommodate them.”

As an employee, you have the right to outline your concerns and have a conversation with your manager or the human resources department to find a solution. However, if being on site is a bonafide requirement of your job, then refusing to return to work could qualify as job abandonment and lead to your termination. The requirement to be on site is determined by your employer, but according to Abraham: “If there are other people in the workplace who aren’t physically present and are doing the job elsewhere, then that would limit the reasonableness of the employer to tay that this is a requirement.” Abraham also recommends comparing your job requirements with similar roles within the industry to provide an example of how the job can function remotely. 

Not sure what the future holds? Consider your plan B

“Now more than ever, it is important to manage and take charge of your career,” says McFarlane. As an advocate for portfolio careers, McFarlane has noticed a surge of professionals diversifying their careers during the pandemic by supplementing their full-time jobs with gig economy work. A portfolio career combines multiple sources of income (that may include additional freelance or consultant work in addition to your full- or part-time employment), offering versatility and financial security. This includes jobs like freelance copywriting, graphic design or working for an app like InstaCart where you can set your own schedule outside of your regular work hours. Not only will this additional work give you a bit of a financial cushion, if you should find yourself in a precarious work situation because of the pandemic, you’ll have something to fall back on until you secure your next role.