Canadian Employee Safety Considerations During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As Canadian employers, plan sponsors and trustees grapple with the evolving implications of coronavirus, there is a need for clear information and guidance. The International Foundation webcast, Coronavirus: Public Health and Canadian Workplace Considerations, examined the public health side of this issue as well as the legal and regulatory concerns for employers.

During the April 1, 2020 webcast, Shaun Parker, an associate at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, spoke about Canadian workplace considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically addressing employee safety and leaves of absence.

Canadian Employee Safety Considerations During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Employee Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Keeping employees safe is the backbone of the workplace obligations that are affected by COVID-19, according to Mr. Parker.

There are two actions employers must undertake to keep employees safe:

  1. Stay Informed
    Follow COVID-19 updates from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Public Health Agency of Canada, provincial and municipal governments, and health agencies to stay up to date with best practices.
  2. Adopt, Review and Update Policies
    As the situation changes rapidly, employers must focus on using best practices for tackling the pandemic. A system should be in place for employees to inform employers about hazards they see in the workplace. Employers should do a walk-through of the workplace and implement controls to reduce the chance of exposure, sanitize the workplace and implement social distancing.

[Related Reading: Coronavirus in the Workplace: Legislation and Regulations Affecting Canadian Employers]

Here are takeaways from three common questions on employee safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Can employers require mandatory disclosure of an employee’s COVID-19 symptoms?

It depends. If an office works entirely remotely, it may not be relevant what symptoms an employee has if he or she is not in contact with anyone right now.

If an office is not working remotely and an employee comes to work after having been exposed to the public, an employer can require the employee to report any cold- and flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath) that can be indicative of COVID-19. Privacy commissioner guidance indicates that employers can ask for a reasonable and limited amount of information, such as disclosure of COVID-19 symptoms, because they have a duty to maintain a safe workplace and prevent the rest of the workforce from becoming sick.

2. Can an employer use an infrared camera to screen an employee’s body temperature?

Infrared screening is most likely a reasonable measure for an employer to take. From a privacy standpoint, the only information collected is an employee’s body temperature. A body temperature is not considered highly intrusive, sensitive personal information.

3. Can an employee refuse to work if he or she is afraid of exposure to COVID-19?

Under occupational health and safety legislation, employees have the right to refuse to work if they have reasonable grounds to believe the work puts themselves or others in danger.

Employers have obligations when an employee brings an unsafe work refusal:

  • Immediately inspect the allegedly dangerous condition.
  • Once inspected, take any necessary steps to remedy the dangerous condition or determine that the dangerous condition does not exist.
  • If an employee raises general COVID-19 exposure concerns, look at prior assessments to see if steps have already been taken to mitigate those risks. If an employee raises a new concern, investigate it and put controls in place to address the issue. If nothing new is raised, nothing further needs to be done. Employers should go above and beyond what they have already done to alleviate the employee’s concerns—even if they are personal controls—when possible, as this is a stressful time for all.

Leaves of Absence

Consider the types of leave employers can provide and offer them to all qualifying employees.

  • Employer-provided leave includes those mentioned in an employee handbook and could include paid sick time or flex time.
  • COVID-19-related statutory leave is a job-protected leave, varying by province, where an employee cannot be terminated unless the entire business shuts down. It can be used to self-isolate or care for a family member. COVID-19-related statutory leaves are typically unpaid, except in Saskatchewan.
  • Existing statutory leave varies by province and is an unpaid, job-protected leave that includes statutory sick, medical and family caregiver leave.

[Upcoming Webcast: Global Economic Outlook | April 8, 2020]

Learn More

Watch the webcast on-demand now (free to International Foundation and International Society members) to learn more, including:

  • Assistance for employees: Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), employment insurance and provincial assistance programs
  • Assistance for employers: COVID-19 wage subsidy, work-sharing program enhancements, supplementary unemployment benefit (SUB) plans, business loans and tax payment deferrals
  • Duties to accommodate
  • Workforce management/cost savings in the form of constructive dismissals, wage and hour rollbacks, temporary layoffs and reductions in force.

You’ll also hear from co-presenter Alan Whiteside (OBE, D.Econ), CIGI chair in global health policy at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Wilfrid Laurier University, who shared how we can learn from the past to help with the future. Mr. Whiteside compared and contrasted the HIV and AIDS epidemics to the COVID-19 pandemic and explained how the COVID-19 virus came about, its progression, transmission, the status of the people it strikes and how the public health response is different than it was for HIV and AIDS. Mr. Whiteside talked about learning from what went on during the HIV epidemic, but he also made clear that we do not have time to learn very much—Quick action is needed.

[Related Reading: Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Employees and Plan Participants]

Coronavirus Resources

Coronavirus and the Workplace

Learn more:

Amanda Wilke, CEBS

Amanda Wilke, CEBS
Information/Research Specialist at the International Foundation

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