The non-stop coverage of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has created concern and fear worldwide. While the Public Health Agency of Canada has assessed the public health risk for Canadians associated with coronavirus (COVID-19) as low at this time, employers must remain vigilant and proactive in preventing the spread of illness in the workplace (coronavirus, flu or otherwise) in order to keep their employees healthy and safe.
Based on recent discussions with clients, legal counsel and the BC Employment Standards Branch, we have compiled the following list of tips on how to manage the coronavirus (COVID-19) risks during these uncertain times:
1. Stay Up To Date
Updates are occurring daily based on local, national and international expert medical assessments. Stay up to date on the latest official news, updates and advisories by visiting credible sources, such as:
Make sure that employees are aware of how to prevent the spread of contagious illnesses. Definitely applicable to all types of illnesses, especially during cold/flu season, reinforcing with employees the following basic hygiene steps is a good idea:
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing using your bent elbow or a tissue.
- Discard used tissues immediately after use.
- Avoid touching your face (eyes, nose and mouth).
- Encourage employees who are experiencing cold/flu symptoms to stay home. Symptoms include cough, sneezing, fever, runny nose, sore throat, breathing difficulties.
- Avoid contact with anyone who is demonstrating symptoms of illness, especially someone who is coughing or sneezing, as the coronavirus is transmitted via liquid droplets from your nose or mouth. Maintain a social distance of at least one metre from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
- Seek medical attention early if you have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing. Call ahead to your health care professional.
3. Maintain a Clean Workplace
Make sure the workplace remains clean and hygienic by:
- Disinfecting surfaces (e.g. desks, tables and countertops) and objects (e.g. phones, light switches, keyboards) regularly.
- Ensuring that anyone who cleans the workplace uses fresh wipes, towels and cleaning supplies and discards used materials to prevent transmission from one location to another.
- Putting hand-sanitizer in prominent places around the workplace.
- Making sure soap and hand sanitizer dispensers are replenished regularly.
- Have face masks and tissues available at the workplace for anyone who develops a runny nose or cough at work, along with closed garbage bins for hygienically disposing them. Then encourage them to stay home.
- It is recommended that anyone who has recently travelled to an area with many cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) or has been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 to self-isolate. Self-isolation means that they stay at home and avoid contact with others for 14 days after travel or after the last contact with the person confirmed to have COVID-19. During this time, they should monitor for symptoms.
- If one of your employees needs to self-isolate because they have recently returned from travel, or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, they should not come into work.
- If an employee chooses to come to work when they should be in self-isolation, the employer can require the employee to stay home. However, consideration then needs to be given as to how/if the employee will continue to be paid while not at work.
5. To Pay or Not to Pay
- The decision on whether employees continue to receive pay while they are self-isolated remains at the discretion of the employer. Different companies have different policies based on what works for them operationally and financially.
- Continuing to pay employees while they are away from work will ensure greater adherence to them either self-declaring that they need to self-isolate, or them staying home if asked. Unfortunately, providing full pay to employees while they are self-isolated and not able to work is not financially feasible for many employers, especially if business is experiencing a downturn at the same time.
- Different actions that employers are taking include:
- Allowing employees who have cold/flu symptoms or who need to self-isolate to work from home. This allows them to continue working (and receiving pay) while they cannot physically be at work.
- Using paid sick leave, should it be available, to provide some paid time off if the employee needs to be away from the workplace. There is no obligation in BC to provide paid sick leave to employees; however, many employers have their own sick leave policies in place or are using this health scare as an opportunity to develop a sick leave policy.
- Providing a discretionary combination of paid and unpaid leave of absence to cover the time (e.g. 50% paid time off).
- Using vacation time to cover the period of time away.
- Implementing a temporary layoff. According to the BC Employment Standards Act, an employer may temporarily layoff an employee for up to 13 weeks in any period of 20 consecutive weeks if the right to do so exists in the employment agreement, or with the consent of the employee. Any week in which an employee earns less than 50% of regular wages is considered a week of layoff.
- Encouraging employees to apply for Employment Insurance, if they qualify, to recoup a portion of lost wages while they are quarantined.
- All options have associated pros and cons and selection of one approach over another may set a precedent for how you will handle future similar situations.
- If you choose to not provide pay to an employee during a period of employer-initiated self-isolation, you may run the risk of a legal challenge or other complaints. Consult with employment legal counsel to determine possible steps to take.
6. Take Reasonable Precautions
An employer’s obligation is to ensure that they provide a safe workplace for employees and that they take all reasonable measures to protect employees from health risks. Employees also have the right to refuse unsafe work if there is a risk of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) at work which will endanger their health or put them at risk.
In addition to the recommendations above, other steps that employers can take to minimize the potential risk to employees include:
- Minimizing large group gatherings, meetings and events.
- Using video conferencing or teleconference options more frequently.
- Restricting non-essential business travel, especially to areas of high risk.
- Encouraging working from home or modifying work schedules to minimize interactions with those at risk.
- Communicating with employees how/when they will informed if there is a health risk at work.
- Displaying posters in prominent places around the workplace to promote hand washing and other healthy habits.
- Reviewing the World Health Organization suggestions on getting your workplace ready for COVID-19.
The response to COVID-19 is fast moving and ever changing as the international medical community learns more about the disease. We urge all employers to stay calm yet proactive, and rely on information from reputable health organizations. Review and update your company policies on general illness and sick leave; however, you don’t necessarily need to create a policy to deal with coronavirus (COVID-19) itself unless it is needed. Lastly, while there is heightened sensitivity due to COVID-19, all the above precautions are important to keep in mind, in general, when maintaining a health and safety workplace.
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