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COVID-19, more commonly known as the Coronavirus, is an influenza that has many employers wondering what they can and need to do to support their teams and provide a safe and healthy work environment.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada COVID-19 causes COVID-19infections of the nose, throat and lungs and it is most commonly spread through:

  • The air by coughing and sneezing
  • Close personal contact such as touching or shaking hands
  • Touching something with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands

Symptoms of COVID-19 include a fever, coughing and difficulty breathing with current information stating these symptoms may present up to 14 days after exposure.

Frequently Asked Questions

What safety precautions should we implement at work to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19?

The number one job of the employer in this situation is to maintain a safe workplace for its employees. Given this, it is important to communicate best practices to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, or any influenza. The best step is to require the following of employees:

  • Wash their hands often with hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid touching their eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.  If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick

This is the perfect time to increase the amount of cleaning and sanitizing that you do around the office and to also provide hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol content) at entrances and desks.

Requesting that people stay home when they are feeling sick will also help lessen the risk of transmission of COVID-19 or any other influenza strain.

If an employee has had direct contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or influenza, then utilizing a face mask by that employee could be considered a reasonable precaution. If there has been no direct contact with COVID-19, this step is unnecessary.

Can I require an employee to stay home after they have returned from a trip abroad or been in close contact with someone who has? If I require them to stay home, do I have to pay them?

If there is valid concern that the person has been exposed to COVID-19, it is reasonable for you to require the employee to not report to work, and recommend that they self-quarantine, for the recommended 14-day period. If the employee has the capacity to work while at home, this would be paid time. If the employee is unable to work from home, HR best practice would be to still pay the employee as this time off work is outside of the employee’s control. Sometimes this pay would be from sick and vacation entitlements. Your HR policies, employment contracts, provincial employment standards legislation and/or collective agreements should be consulted to guide your decision making.

Can I restrict employee travel?

Restricting or postponing work-related travel can be an effective way to keep your employees safe until the situation has improved. The Government of Canada’s Travel Advice and Advisories offer destination specific information including possible health hazards.

If you become aware that an employee has travelled for personal reasons, you have a responsibility to determine if self-quarantine is required. You cannot control if an employee choses to travel for personal reasons, therefore it is recommended that you discuss the employee’s plans with them and let them know that if they do chose to travel, they may be subject to a self-quarantine period when they return.

Also consider what your travel insurance policy will cover in the event of travel to an impacted region. Insurance providers typically do not cover travel to regions where the government of Canada has issued travel advice or travel advisory indicating that you should “avoid all travel” or “avoid non-essential travel”. It is important to inform your employee of this if they are considering personal travel to an impacted area.

Can employees refuse to come to work?

If someone choses to self isolate over concern of catching COVID-19, you must consider if this is simply an uneasiness for their health or if an accommodation is required due to a valid health concern such as an autoimmune issue. It is also important to consider if the refusal to work is due to a safety concern, which would then be governed by occupational health and safety legislation.

If the workplace is deemed to be safe and it is an employee’s personal choice you may allow the employee to use their vacation and sick days to take some time off or allow them to work from home if the capability is there. Consider what precedent you wish to set and what works with the culture of your company.

If the employee has a medical reason for wanting to self isolate, the need to consider it an accommodation arises. In this case, consult your company’s relevant accommodation policy. If your handbook is silent on this, start by requiring confirmation from a medical professional that the employee needs to self-quarantine for personal medical reasons. Once you have that, you can determine what accommodation might be possible.

What do I do if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19?

If an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, you must consider both the business needs and a duty of care to all of your employees. The employee in question would be required to remain off work until they were cleared for work by a medical professional. Depending on the situation, it may be reasonable to request that any employees who had been exposed not report to work for the recommended 14-day period. Ideally these employees would have the capacity to work from home.

What else to consider

There is no doubt that we find ourselves in a situation that is quickly evolving and has created some uncharted territory for many employers. While it’s difficult to predict what scenarios, if any, employers and employees may find themselves involved in, it’s important to keep some other considerations in mind, including:

  • What benefits programs are available for employees? If you have short-term disability coverage, this might be an option for someone to access if they become ill with COVID-19.
  • The employer’s responsibility is to maintain a safe workplace. Your guiding principle here is your provincial occupational health and safety legislation.
  • Do you have any language in your employee contracts or handbooks that would support any decision you make?
  • What is your business continuity plan? Does it take into account the possibility of a pandemic? If not, consider what plans should be put in place if this becomes a reality.

Resources

While there is much media coverage of the COVID-19 virus it is important to be sure the information is reputable and up to date. Here are 6 sites that will keep you informed:

Your Engaged HR Assignment

This is the perfect time to review your policies, refine business continuity plans, and implement sensible precautions at the workplace that would endure beyond the current outbreak. As always, if you need support, we’re just a click or a call away.

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