Promote plans, not panic, in a pandemic: 7 legal steps to mitigate workplace risk

All workplaces, large and small, should have plans that focus on preparation and response, not fear.  Fear and rumours aren’t helpful.  Fact-based, employee communication and updates are also critical, as is staying up to date with public health agencies.

As I wrote this, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 disease a pandemic. The Public Health Agency of Canada continues to assess the public health risk as low for Canada, although the spread is high. COVID-19 has reached public, residential and work places in Ontario with some employers taking the extraordinary actions to combat the spread, such as closing offices, stepping up cleaning and disinfecting routines, encouraging ‘social distancing’, or asking staff to self-isolate or work from home.

While the law cannot anticipate specifics in a pandemic, legal considerations should be employed in planning. I recommend employers dig in and review policies and procedures, including:

  1. Update and Review Contracts and Policies

Heightened awareness is a cue for all employers to update their contracts and workplace policies, including sick leave and workplace wellness. Establish work-from-home specifics, visitor protocols, or ‘nonpunitive’ policies for ill employees, contractors and caregivers. However: If your workplace has been impacted by COVID-19, now may not be the time to change policies, as you are facing a time-sensitive business crisis.

  1. Communication

Employee, partner or client communication should be proactive to minimize panic and appropriately manage expectations. When a crisis arises, such as employer or employee actions that may put stakeholders at risk or violate the law, a legal review and protocol of crisis communication must be put into place to ensure accuracy of facts and statements.

  1. Establish and Adopt Remote Work Policies

Employers should consider allowing employees, where possible, to work from home as a precautionary measure. Employees need to be ready for work through normal channels, i.e., email, phone, etc. These are key policy development considerations.

  1. Review Paid Time Off and Sick Leave Policies

Maybe you or staff have returned from travel. Depending on from where, you may want to consider self-isolation or ask those employees to work from home for two weeks. Be sure to consult with public health authorities and obtain legal advice before doing so to ensure compliance with the law.

Sick leave allowances—and employer generosity—will allow employees time to recover without being hard-pressed to pay for basic living expenses.

If a business cannot financially offer any paid sick leave, employers should provide employees with guidance in applying for EI sick benefits in order to recover some of their lost income due to a prolonged illness.

  1. Remember Unpaid Statutory Leaves

While paid sick leave is helpful, there are unpaid leaves available under the Employment Standards Act, 2000 that may also be beneficial, including:  Personal Emergency Leave, Family Medical / Family Caregiver / Critical Illness leaves. Employees are also protected from discrimination under Ontario’s Human Rights Code if they are away due to illness, or if absence is necessary to care for a dependent.

  1. Do Not Discriminate

As a reminder from my February, 2020 blog post, it is unacceptable to differentiate any one for any reason, and employees who may have tested positive to coronavirus are entitled to protection from harassment or discrimination.

  1. Proactive Hygienic Operations

Good hygiene is a best practice no matter when, but it is especially important now. Find alternatives to handshake greetings and avoid unnecessary contact for the next while.

Whether you are an employer or an employee, to book an appointment with me* or for more information on COVID-19 or any other employment law concern, please contact my practice assistant, Sandra Pakosh.

I also regularly act as a mediator of workplace and employment-related disputes.

This blog post is for informational purposes only, and in reaction to current events or timely hot topics. It is not intended as legal or any other form of professional advice.

*Legal services provided by Mitchell Rose Professional Corporation.

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