Over the past few weeks, news channels and social media platforms have been saturated with information and misinformation about the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
So far, more than 20,000 people – mainly in China – have been affected by the virus and at the time of writing this article, at least 427 have died.[i] Here in Canada, there have been four confirmed cases.[ii]
And while government and international agencies do their best to contain the situation, employers should also be considering what their next steps should be in the event of a more widespread outbreak here at home.
Tips for Employers
Currently the coronavirus in Canada is far from being a pandemic. Employers for the time being should focus on prevention. Steps employers can take may include:
- Providing information to employees about the symptoms of coronavirus and on what measures can be taken to prevent it. This information is readily available through the Public Health Agency of Canada.
- Encourage employees to wash their hands prior to work and after touching surfaces that may have come in contact with a flu virus.
- Providing hand sanitizer.
- Finally, if your company does business in China, you should strongly consider taking the federal government’s recommendation of avoiding all non-essential travel to China and avoiding all travel to Hubei Province.[iii]
It is important for employers to understand that they are legally responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace – and this includes taking measures to prevent the spread of contagious disease. If an employee is exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus or has travelled recently to an affected area, they should be prevented from attending the workplace until the threat of infection is gone.
The Right to Refuse Work
According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, workers may refuse work when it is “likely to endanger” their health or safety. Should there be an outbreak of coronavirus in Canada, employees may refuse to perform their duties if it puts them in a situation where infection is likely. Employers who receive a safety-related work refusal are then required to investigate and find a solution or to contact provincial labour inspectors. Employers may not discipline or dismiss an employee who is exercising their right to refuse unsafe work.
Time Off and Lost Pay
The most controversial questions that employers will likely face in the event of an outbreak is around time off and lost pay. In Ontario, employees are entitled to take protected sick leave under the Employment Standards Act, 2000 and any company policy that may exist, and they cannot be dismissed for doing so.
If an employee is symptom free but are still prevented from coming into work, they should still be paid for that time. If possible, the employer might consider finding a way for them to work from home. If the employer refuses to pay a symptom free employee who has been sent home, they open themselves up to constructive dismissal and human rights complaints.
The best thing that employers can do right now is to be prepared. Consider developing a task force to review the “what if” scenarios that might occur in a pandemic. Plan in advance how you might operate with less staff or whether more employees could work remotely. Decide in advance what options you might offer to employees who need to take unpaid sick leave and, most importantly, how you can ensure the highest level of safety in your workplace.
For legal advice on dealing with a potential coronavirus outbreak in your workplace, contact Minken Employment Lawyers today.
- The Novel Coronavirus – Employer’s Responsibilities & Employee’s Rights
- What to Do When HR Won’t Do Anything
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