What are your obligations as an employer in regard to COVID-19?

The COVID-19 outbreak is prompting many employers to review current policies and determine whether they need to be updated. Keep in mind that policies that don’t give paid sick leave or allow employees to work from home may deter employees from reporting symptoms or from staying home if they have contracted COVID-19 or any other illness.

Protecting Employee Health and Safety
You have an obligation to do everything you reasonably can to protect the health and safety of your employees. You are required to inform your employees of all health and safety hazards at the workplace, set up safe work practices and ensure they are followed.  Possible exposure to COVID-19 at work is a hazard to your employees so you should treat it the same as other health and safety concerns and take all reasonable steps to protect your employees from possible exposure.

Policy suggestions: If an employee has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms, the employee should tell the you immediately. You should reserve the right to verify that information and decide whether the employee does or might pose a risk to other employees. Employees that are sick or quarantined should not be allowed to return to work until cleared.

Handling Sick Days
If an employee is sick with COVID-19 or any other illness, your sick leave policy takes effect. The employee would first access any paid sick leave days under your policy, and after that should look to any sick leave benefits available under your benefits plan if you have one. If the employee runs out of sick leave days and benefits, you do not have any obligation to grant additional sick days but he or she may be able to claim employment insurance. The federal government said it will eliminate or reduce the normal waiting period for those who need assistance.

Policy suggestions: Consider updating your policies to allow the employee to use vacation time as paid sick time, but don’t force employees to use it. Vacation days are an employee benefit and the employee should decide whether to use them or take unpaid sick leave.

Restricting Travel
You can restrict an employee’s business-related travel but not personal travel. You can, however, require them to disclose if they have travelled to high-risk areas.

Policy suggestions: Advise employees to check the government’s travel health notices before travelling. Require employees who have travelled to high-risk areas to self-quarantine by either working remotely or taking a leave of absence for 14 days after returning to Canada. If that is not possible, require a clearance letter from a doctor before allowing the employee to return to work.

Refusing to Work
Employees have a right to refuse unsafe work but that refusal must be based on reasonable assessment of the risk. If an employee is refusing to work due to COIVD-19 concerns, you should investigate and determine if there is basis for the refusal. Consider factors such as whether there has been any exposure to COVID-19 by anyone in the workplace, whether appropriate measures have been taken, etc.

Policy Suggestions: You could potentially take disciplinary action against an employee who refuses to work without a reasonable basis, but the better approach here would probably be to treat it as an unpaid leave of absence.

Restricting Workplace Visitors
Monitoring visitors to the workplace is also important to reduce the spread of COVID-19. You have the right to ask visitors in advance whether they have any symptoms, have been in contact with anyone infected, or travelled to a high-risk area.

Policy suggestions: Ask potential visitors these questions in advance and if the answer is “yes” to any question, request that the person not visit the workplace until they have had no symptoms for 14 days or have a clearance certificate from a doctor. Ask visitors for their contact information so you can advise them if it is discovered later that the visitor may have been exposed during their visit.

Protecting Employee Privacy
You have to balance the duty to protect the health and safety of your employees against the duty to protect the privacy of your employees. You should notify any employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19, but at the same time make reasonable efforts not to disclose any information that might identify the individual who may have caused the COVID-19 risk. If disclosure of personal information is required, you may need to give subsequent notice to the individual whose personal information was disclosed.

Policy suggestions: Do not disclose the reasons for an employee’s leave or remote working arrangement, except to employees who require that information to carry out their employment duties. When disclosing the fact an individual was potentially exposed to COVID-19, disclose the date of potential exposure and the extent and circumstances, but do not provide the name, date of birth or other identifiers of the individual who may have caused the COVID-19 risk.