Tesla is forcing employees back to the office. Can Canadian employers do the same?

It has been a busy spring for multibillionaire Elon Musk.

The Tesla CEO bid $44 billion to buy Twitter in a deal that may ultimately not come to pass, instructed all his employees to return to the office and is cutting the Tesla workforce by 10 per cent.

While the consequences of Musk’s actions are varied and wide ranging, as an employment lawyer, I see his actions as valuable learning experiences for employees across Canada.

Forcing employees to return to the workplace

In a recent email sent to employees and seen by Reuters, Musk said that “everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week.” He also informed staff that if they don’t show up, he will “assume you have resigned.”

While other large tech firms have not required employees to return to the office due to backlash from workers, his request is completely legal under Canadian employment laws.

READ MORE: What to know about employment rights if your company looks to hybrid or in-person work

If you were expected to do your job in a workplace before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, your employer has the right to ask you to come back, granted your pay, position and duties remain untouched.

If you refuse this request, the company can consider you to have abandoned your job, bringing the work relationship to an end without severance pay. If, however, you need to continue working from home for legitimate medical or family-related issues, your employer will need to accommodate your request.

A Musk-style recall would not apply to employees hired with the understanding that they would work remotely. In that case, a worker would not need to shift to an office environment. They could still be fired for refusing to change their location of work, but they would be owed a full severance package — as much as 24 months’ pay.

READ MORE: Fired for no reason? Employment lawyer explains why your employer can do that

Laying off workers due to the economy

In a separate email to staff, also seen by Reuters, Musk announced that he needs to cut 10 per cent of jobs at Tesla because he has a “super bad feeling” about the economy.

In Canada, a company has the right to let employees go for many reasons, including in response to economic difficulties like high inflation.

What an employer cannot do is use economic difficulties as an excuse to provide smaller severance packages. When a recession happens, laid-off employees may actually be entitled to more severance because it may be harder to find comparable employment elsewhere. This is true for both salaried and hourly workers.

READ MORE: Laid off in a bad economy? You might be owed more severance, not less

When difficulty strikes, some companies may decide to put employees on a temporary layoff. Unless it is otherwise covered in your employment contract, though, it is illegal for your employer to put you on a layoff.

You can treat the temporary layoff as a termination of your employment and pursue severance through a constructive dismissal claim with help from an employment lawyer at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP.

Being forced to return to the office? Fired due to inflation or a bad economy?

Contact the firm or call 1-855-821-5900 to secure assistance from an employment lawyer in Ontario, Alberta or British Columbia. Get the advice you need — and the compensation you deserve.

Lior Samfiru is an employment lawyer and partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, Canada’s most positively reviewed law firm specializing in employment law and long-term disability claims. He provides free advice as the host of Canada’s only Employment Law Show on TV and radio.

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