Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Workplace Preparedness

Managing workplace issues related to COVID-19 is an important part of an employer’s duties and responsibilities. We wanted to provide you with some information that you may find useful as you deal with the issue in your business and with your employees, clients and suppliers.
Categories: Business Insights
Mar 17th, 2020 | By: CapriCMW

CapriCMW, like many organizations, is monitoring the global spread of the COVID-19 outbreak with information being released from the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). The health and well-being of our team members, their families, and our clients, partners and communities remains our top priority.

Managing workplace issues related to COVID-19 is an important part of an employer’s duties and responsibilities. We wanted to provide you with some information that you may find useful as you deal with the issue in your business and with your employees, clients and suppliers.

What should employers do immediately in response to COVID-19?

As with many employment-related considerations, the optics of how an employer responds to concerns regarding COVID-19 are important from a human resources, as well as a public-facing business perspective, particularly if employees interact with the public at large. The goal is to not panic while also avoiding being under-responsive. This is a current and important matter. Every employee is reading or hearing about COVID-19 on a daily basis. Employers should be encouraging staff to come to management with any concerns they have related to the workplace.

Employers should also actively remind employees that it is unacceptable to treat employees or members of the public differently, or assume they might be infected with COVID-19 on the basis of their race, place of origin, citizenship, ethnic origin or ancestry. Assuming that someone has the virus because they happen to have exhibited one of the symptoms of the virus and because of an assumption about where they are from based upon how they look would most likely be considered discrimination. If an employer were aware of this differential treatment and chose not to respond, they could be exposed to liability since employers are in most cases vicariously liable for the actions of their employees. We strongly urge employers communicate to employees that they should not assume someone with symptoms of a respiratory illness has COVID-19, and there are no people of any specific race, ethnicity or place of origin that are uniquely susceptible or more likely to contract COVID-19.

Now, as always during cold and flu season, it is wise to encourage employees that are exhibiting symptoms of an illness to stay home. It is also wise to remind employees of prudent precautions to reduce the possibility of exposure to illnesses including, but not limited to, influenza and COVID-19, such as:

  • washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds;
  • disinfecting common surfaces such as equipment, door handles and countertops;
  • avoid touching the eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands;
  • covering the nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing by using a tissue or a flexed elbow;
  • avoiding contact with people who are sick;
  • getting a flu shot; and
  • contacting a healthcare provider if the employee has questions or concerns about their health.

Aside from engaging in standard preventative practices, taking more extreme precautions such as wearing masks or refusing to provide services to members of the general public, is unjustified for most workplaces, and is likely to cause panic. We recommend that employers consider other steps specific to their workplaces such as reducing or eliminating group meetings, reducing or eliminating business travel, and encouraging employees suffering symptoms that are consistent with COVID-19 to leave/ stay away from the workplace.

Information and communication are important tools to manage any workplace concern. We encourage  employers to stay informed and follow recommendations published by Canadian public health agencies. 
The following are links to some helpful websites discussing the status of COVID-19:

What restrictions may be placed on employee travel?

Many employers have restrictions on non-essential business travel and prohibit business travel to countries subject to a level 3 or 4 government health travel advisory. As of March 13, the Government of Canada has issued an  Official Global Travel Advisory advising Canadians to “avoid non-essential travel outside of Canada until further  notice." Therefore, like the Government of Canada, we encourage all employers to discourage employee travel outside of Canada. Furthermore, we also recommend against travel to areas where there have been reports of  community spread of the virus.

If employees do travel overseas or to areas with reports of community spread of the virus, please know that the Canadian government is asking all travellers from abroad to self-isolate for 14-days post-return.

Are you required to pay employees who are not at work due to COVID-19?

If an employee is unwell or suspects that they may have the virus, the employee should be encouraged to stay away from the workplace and obtain medical advice. The employee may be eligible for sick leave or employment  insurance (EI) benefits.

If an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19 and is not working, then the employer is not required to pay the employee. The employee may be eligible for sick leave benefits provided by the employer depending on the terms of the plan. If the employer does not provide sick leave benefits, the employee should be eligible for EI benefits as discussed below.

A slightly different situation arises where an employee cannot work because they are required by health officials to self-isolate due to contact with a person with COVID-19. In terms of sick leave benefits, employers who self-insure their short term sick leave plans may elect to extend coverage to employees in these situations who are not ill but are required to self-isolate due to exposure to the virus. Employers who have insured sick leave plans should consult with the insurer if these types of absences will be covered by the plan. The employee may be able to receive EI benefits if they meet the EI definition of quarantine discussed below. Also, employers should also consider  allowing employees to access their paid vacation time for this period.

Another situation is where an employer requires an employee to self-isolate due to the employer’s fear that the employee may have come into contact with someone outside the workplace with COVID-19, but the employee themselves is not sick and a health official has neither recommended nor ordered them quarantined. In those circumstances, employers should consider continuing to pay the employee since an employer’s fear alone is likely insufficient reason to ban the employee from work. Employers should be mindful of possible claims of constructive dismissal or breach of contractual wage provisions if an employee capable of working is required to stay home and is not paid.

Given the interest in containing the spread of the disease, employers may wish to encourage employees to work remotely to the extent that is possible. Employees who are working remotely are entitled to receive their regular pay and benefits. Employees should also be able to access vacation if they choose.

What employment insurance benefits are available?

On March 11, 2020, as part of the COVID-19 Response Fund, the Government of Canada waived the mandatory one-week waiting period in applying for EI sickness benefits for those workers who are sick or quarantined due to COVID-19. A dedicated toll-free line (1-833-381-2725) has been created for applicants seeking to waive the waiting period. The worker would still need to complete an online EI application form. However, the usual requirement for a medical certificate has now been waived. Those who are unable to complete their claim for EI sickness benefits due to quarantine may apply later and have their EI claim backdated to cover the period of delay.

The general eligibility requirements for EI sickness benefits include that the worker has accumulated 600 hours of insurable employment in the 52 weeks before the start of this claim or since the start of the worker’s last claim, whichever is shorter.

Employers play a critical role in the  management of public health concerns.

Employers should take the health risks seriously and maintain an open dialogue with their employees about reasonable concerns related to COVID-19 in the workplace, while not  encouraging an overreaction. We encourage all employers to remain vigilant against both complacency and panic, as well as safeguarding the rights of those from places affected by this virus.

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