COVID-19

Given the rapidly changing landscape regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19), we are providing an update to our March 10th article on practical tips for BC employers to manage this difficult situation.

On March 12, 2020, Adrian Dix, BC Minister of Health, and Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s Provincial Health Officer, issued a joint statement which, among numerous updates on coronavirus (COVID-19), included:

  1. A recommendation against all non-essential travel outside of Canada with a subsequent advisory from the Government of Canada advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside of Canada until further notice.
  2. A strong recommendation that asks anyone who returns to Canada to self-isolate from work or school for 14 days upon their return.
  3. A directive that all event organizers cancel any gatherings larger than 250 people, including conferences and meetings.
  4. A recommendation encouraging employers to excuse staff for sick leave without requiring a doctor’s note, if employees are ill or require self-isolation.

These are unprecedented times and we encourage all employers to stay up to date on the latest developments regarding COVID-19 using reputable health organizations and news sources. Our March 10th article includes a link to a number of relevant sources as well as a number of recommendations for employers. Small Business BC and the BC Government have also prepared a joint checklist of considerations for small businesses to help minimize the impact of COVID-19.

While the Public Health Agency of Canada continues to assess the public health risk associated with coronavirus (COVID-19) as low, employers must continue to take all necessary measures to ensure that employees remain safe and that the spread of illness in the workplace is minimized as this risk level can change rapidly.

Based on these latest developments, and as a part of overall business continuity and contingency planning, we encourage all employers to keep the following considerations in mind:

1) Work From Home
The largest number of questions we have received relates to working from home. If employees ask to work from home and it is possible for them to do so and carry out the full functions of their role, by all means, have them work from home. This is a realistic and practical way to both ensure that social distance is maintained and to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

This would also be a good time to clarify your company’s policy and processes regarding working from home. Consider the following:

  • Ensure that protocols are in place to maintain the security of confidential company information if employees are working from home. Make sure employees have secure VPN access to the company’s computer network, if needed, and that they have all appropriate firewalls and security measures in place on their computers.
  • Reiterate that any work equipment provided by the company (e.g. laptops, computers, tablets) is restricted to employee use only and should not be shared with others in their household for personal use. Reinforce that company equipment should be secured or locked when not in use and should never be left unattended in a vehicle.
  • As the home work location is essentially an extension of the workplace, ensure that employees are able to work in a safe and healthy manner while they are working remotely. While this may not be as critical for a day here and there, this issue will become important if working from home is, or becomes, a more frequent occurrence. A properly designated workspace that is safe, well-lit, well-ventilated, and has appropriate fire protection and electrical safety are essential. The workstation should be ergonomically designed and properly arranged.
  • Clarify your expectations on how and when employees are expected to maintain contact with the company while they work from home. Perhaps a daily check-in, or an end-of-day email, would be appropriate. While this may not be a necessity if employees are working from home for a week or two, it will become very important to maintain good communication with staff if the work from home period extends for a longer period of time.

2) When Working from Home is Not an Option
There are certainly many employees who work in positions where they cannot work from home to carry out their functions effectively. In such circumstances, precautionary measures that employers can take include:

  • Adjusting shifts so that fewer employees are working at the same time. For example, stagger employee start and end times to minimize the number of staff onsite at once.
  • Stagger breaks so that fewer people are congregating together at the same time for meals.
  • Increase cleaning and disinfecting of the workplace including desktops, instrument panels, cash registers and PIN pads, door handles, steering wheels and other commonly-touched surfaces.
  • Have hand sanitizer available in high traffic and high visibility locations.
  • Continue to encourage staff to practice proper hygiene and maintain a social distance from one another.

3) Meetings
While it is clear that meetings or conferences which exceed 250 people should be postponed or cancelled at this time, it is also a good time for employers to re-evaluate whether meetings of fewer than 250 people are essential and should continue as planned.

  • Consider restricting all in-person meetings (e.g. staff meetings, interviews, training sessions) to those that are absolutely essential.
  • Use video or teleconferencing rather than in-person meetings when possible.
  • The recommendation is that a social distance of at least one meter be kept between individuals to prevent the spread of illness. If meetings must occur in person, ensure that it is possible to maintain the one meter distance between participants, or consider reducing the size of the meeting to allow for more free space.
  • If meetings do need to occur in person, ensure that any employees who are in self-isolation or are working from home also have an opportunity to attend remotely.

4) Travel
With non-essential travel outside of Canada being discouraged, some employers may have employees who need to travel for work. Some practical tips:

  • Be aware that all travellers will be required to self-isolate for 14 days when they return home from any international location.
  • Check with your travel company and/or airline to ensure that flights can and will continue as scheduled.
  • Check with the airport at both your home and destination locations to be aware of their screening protocols.
  • Leave lots of time to undergo screening measures at the airport. Also, be aware that anyone travelling outside of Canada may be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected if new restrictions are imposed.
  • Anyone currently outside of Canada is encouraged to return to Canada as soon as possible in case commercial options to return become more limited.
  • The Prime Minister announced this morning that Canada is barring entry to all travellers who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents. Current exceptions are air crew, diplomats, immediate family members of citizens and U.S. citizens.

5) Employment Insurance and Work-Sharing
A number of updates have been made to the Employment Insurance and Work-Sharing programs to provide additional assistance to employers and employees:

  • The Government has announced that the 1-week waiting period for Employment Insurance Sickness benefits has been waived for new claimants who are quarantined due to COVID-19. This means that, if they qualify, employees who are quarantined can be paid for the first week of their claim.
  • The Work-Sharing program is also implementing temporary special measures to support employers and employees who are affected by a downturn in business caused by COVID-19. A Work-Sharing program helps employers avoid layoffs when there is a temporary reduction in the normal level of business activity that is beyond the employer’s control.
  • Should your employees apply for Employment Insurance during a period of quarantine, you can top-up their EI payments by establishing a Supplementary Unemployment Benefit Plan.

We are in unchartered territory and appreciate that anxiety may be high among employers and employees alike. We continue to urge all employers to stay calm and patient, yet proactive, and rely on information from reputable health organizations (such as the BC Centre for Disease Control, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Vancouver Coastal Health). While it will no doubt be difficult and will require sacrifices to be made across the board, we strongly encourage you to follow the recommendations from health officials to ensure the health and safety of your employees, their families and the community at large.

We often tell clients that the true sign of a company’s character is how they treat employees when times are tough, not when times are good. We have every confidence that during this difficult time, our clients and service partners will continue to let their true, brilliant colours, shine through and uphold their company values. It is an opportunity to show leadership strength by taking this situation seriously and demonstrating to your employees, in actions and in words, that they, and their well-being, are your top priority. We are here to help you however we can in this rapidly changing environment.

 

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