Currently, 10,132 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Canada as of April 2, 2020. This disease is a serious concern for Canadian employers, who potentially face severe business interruptions should an outbreak occur at their organization. Employers are highly advised to prepare continuity plans to manage a potential outbreak while taking the following Canadian laws into consideration at every stage:
What is COVID-19?
There have been several terms used to describe COVID-19 to the public. Here are the most common and what they mean:
- Coronavirus refers to a wide range of viruses that cause respiratory infections. Their severity ranges from mild, such as the common cold, to severe, such as SARS.
- Novel coronavirus is used to refer to any recently discovered coronavirus deemed medically significant.
- COVID-19 is the term used to describe the disease that first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, caused by a novel coronavirus. “COVID” is short for coronavirus disease, with “19” indicating the year of origin, 2019.
- SARS-CoV-2 is the official name for the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Symptoms of COVID-19 may include a fever, runny nose, cough and trouble breathing. Most people with COVID-19 only develop mild symptoms. However, some people—usually those with other medical complications—develop more severe symptoms such as pneumonia, which can be fatal. In this way, COVID-19 is similar to 2002’s SARS and 2012’s MERS, which were also caused by novel coronaviruses. There are currently no vaccines or antiviral drugs to prevent or treat coronavirus infections.
COVID-19 spreads from person-to-person through close proximity (within about two metres) and through respiratory droplets produced when a person infected with the virus coughs or sneezes, which are either inhaled or land in the mouth or nose of a nearby person. It is possible that it spreads through touching a surface or object with the virus on it (one that has been touched, coughed or sneezed on by an infected person) and then touching one’s own mouth, nose or eyes. However, this is not currently believed to be the main way in which the virus spreads.
COVID-19 Preventive Steps
The following preventive steps can be taken by employers to help reduce the risk of an outbreak in the workplace:
- Remind employees of good hygiene and respiratory etiquette.
- Encourage sick employees to stay home.
- Routinely clean the work environment.
- Consider restricting business travel to certain regions.
- Cross-train employees to perform essential tasks in the event of workplace absences.
- Consider allowing employees to work remotely or in staggered shifts to prevent the spread of illnesses.
What Employers Need to Know About Coronavirus
Employment Standard Legislation
Unpaid leave—Most employees may take unpaid statutory leaves of absence based on how long they have been with an employer and the province in which they live. These employees typically cannot be disciplined or dismissed, depending on the circumstances. However, they may be prevented from returning to work in the event of an outbreak until they no longer have any symptoms or pose a threat to other employees.
Sick leave pay—Employees with COVID-19 may be asked to work from home for 14 days in order to keep the workplace safe. Depending on jurisdiction, handbook provisions and/or individual contracts, some eligible employees may be entitled to sick leave benefits if they are unable to work from home. Employers should ensure that the hardware is available and infrastructure is in place to allow employees to work remotely. For example, providing office-owned laptops that are capable of remotely accessing work files stored on the organization’s server can allow many office workers to work remotely for extended periods of time.
Lost salary—Employers risk human rights complaints should they fail to compensate employees who are not sick but are prevented from attending the workplace. Additionally, refusing to pay employees who are not permitted to work may encourage employees to lie about symptoms, thus furthering the spread of the virus.
Occupational Health and Safety
Right to a safe workplace—Employers and their employees have a duty to make the workplace a safe environment for themselves and everyone else, including preventing the spread of infectious illness and disease. As such, employers should pay close attention to the health of their employees, and if any exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, they should be encouraged to see a physician and prevented from working on-site for 14 days or until they have a letter of clearance from their physician.
Right to refuse work—If an employee believes they are in danger at the workplace, they are entitled to refuse to work under applicable occupational health or safety legislation. In this event, employers must investigate the situation immediately and attempt to work out a solution that satisfies the employee. In the event that a solution cannot be found, the employer must notify a Ministry of Labour inspector or officer.
Discrimination and harassment—Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, disability (including any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness) race, ancestry or place or origin is prohibited under human rights legislation. In the case of COVID-19, this means that employees cannot be treated differently simply because they are in any way associated with, or perceived to be associated with, an area or race associated with COVID-19. For example, the perception that an employee may be infected or contagious because they are of Asian descent can trigger anti-discrimination protections.
Right to privacy—Employees have a right to have their personal information, including health status, kept confidential. However, because employers are obliged to ensure a safe workplace, there may be instances when you must decide between revealing the names of employees with COVID-19 symptoms for the safety of others and maintaining your employees’ privacy.
Communication With Employees
When communicating with employees about COVID-19, employers should speak clearly and factually with the goal of inspiring confidence rather than raising a panic. Importantly, employees should be left feeling that their health and safety is the employer’s top priority and that the employer is taking the necessary precautions to protect the employees. Employers may also want to share information on how to avoid becoming infected and what steps to take in the event that an employee believes they may be infected, directing employees to health agencies for more information.