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Can my employer make me take public transit to get to work?


Disclaimer: Check current public health recommendations first! 
Public health recommendations are changing frequently. If you have to use public transit to get to work, stay up to date on your public health authority’s advice and follow the practices it recommends.

As we discussed in a previous post, some work truly requires employees to be physically present in the workplace. But that raises a question for employees who have to use public transit to get to work: Does your employer have any legal responsibility for your health and safety while you are in transit?

The law in Ontario places a broad obligation on employers to protect worker health and safety. According to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act, for example, employers must “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.”  

Usually, an employer’s health and safety obligations do not extend to an employee’s commute. So your employer would not typically be responsible for your health and safety while you are on your way to and from your regular workplace. 

But COVID-19 is a special situation. Governments across the country are taking extraordinary steps to keep people at home. They have closed non-essential businesses and have strongly encouraged employers to let their employees work from home whenever possible. Emergency orders and public health recommendations meant to keep us physically distant from each other are being enforced.

When it comes to public transit, the province of Ontario recommends that people who are self-isolating should avoid public transportation. Taking public transit is likely to put you at greater risk of contact with others and a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 than other forms of transportation like walking, biking or driving your personal vehicle.

For these reasons, an argument could be made that that your employer’s obligation to protect your health and safety during this pandemic extends to your commute. Employers who require their employees to be physically present at work should make sure they can get to work in the safest way possible. This might mean encouraging employees with cars to drive to work and subsidizing gas, mileage and/or parking for them. Some employers and governments have already made workplace parking free. For employees whose only option is public transit, employers should consider accommodations that would make employees’ commute safer, such as changing schedules to allow employees to travel at less busy times.

These safety measures, and others designed to keep employees safe during their commutes, should be considered and adopted by employers whenever possible.