It's now federal election time! As an employer, you may be wondering what your obligations are towards your employees. Below is an overview of the applicable rules ahead of election day on October 21, 2019.

Employer obligations

The Canada Elections Act[1] (the Act) provides that every employee who is an elector is entitled to three consecutive hours off from work to vote.[2] To qualify as an elector the employee must, on polling day, be a Canadian citizen that is 18 years of age or older.[3] The Act states that the employer shall not, by intimidation, undue influence or by any other means, attempt to interfere with the granting of time off.[4]

Three consecutive hours at the employer's convenience

If an employee's work schedule allows for three consecutive hours to vote, the employer does not need to give the employee any time off during the work shift.

However, if the employee's work schedule does not allow for three consecutive hours to vote, the employer must allow the employee to take the necessary time off work, with pay, to ensure that the employee has three consecutive hours off work to vote. The time off work to vote is "at the employer's convenience". Employees may be released at the beginning, during or at the end of their work shifts.

Voting hours are summarized in the chart below. In Quebec and Ontario, for instance, polling stations are open from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. If an employee works from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a half-hour lunch break, the employer must allow the employee to leave at 6:30 p.m. to satisfy its legal obligations. The employer must pay the employee for the thirty minutes of time off as though the employee had remained at work.

In theory, the Act does not prevent an employer from changing an employee's schedule, subject to the specific provisions of the employee's employment contract or a collective agreement. For instance, if a Quebec or Ontario employee works from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. but is asked by the employer to start and finish an hour earlier, from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., the employer will not have to compensate the employee as he or she will have three consecutive hours to vote before 9:30 p.m. as required by the Act.

Voting hours by time zone

Waiver of the right to vote

An employee can waive his or her right to time off work for voting granted under the Act. If the employee waives this right, the employee can stay at work. The employer may, however, have to prove that the waiver was made voluntarily and was not the result of the employer's interference with the employee's right to time off work.

Exception – Transportation companies

The Act sets out that the obligations described above do not apply to transportation companies and their employees operating a mean of transportation outside their polling division if the time off to vote cannot be allowed without interfering with the transportation service.[5] In such a case, the employer would not have to grant the employee time off to vote.

No pay withholding

Employers cannot withhold pay because an employee as taken time off work to vote.[6] Improper withholding occurs if the employee is paid less than the amount he or she would have earned on that day has he or she not taken time off to vote.

Both withholding pay and interfering with an employee's right to three hours of time off to vote constitute an offence under the Act. Such an offence is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, imprisonment for up to three years, or both.[7] Further, using intimidation, undue influence or any other means to prevent eligible employees from having three consecutive hours to vote is an offence punishable by a fine of up to $50,000, imprisonment for up to five years, or both.[8]