Over the past several weeks, news of the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV or Coronavirus) has dominated our newsfeeds with 208 cases in Ontario at the time of writing, 102 of which are in Toronto. COVID-19 has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization. Wuhan, China is ground zero for COVID-19. China responded with an aggressive strategy and taken the extraordinary step of confining residents of Wuhan to their homes.
Although the consequences for Canadians are still uncertain, many employers are wondering how COVID-19 may affect the workplace. It is never too soon to begin preparedness measures to manage in this ever-changing climate. The lawyers at Devry Smith Frank LLP can assist.
Symptoms and Transmission
- difficulty breathing
In severe cases, the infection can lead to death.
There does not yet exist a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. Health officials have advised Canadians to take everyday preventative actions such as avoiding close contact with people who are sick, washing hands often with soap and water, social distancing, avoiding unnecessary travel, and self-isolation when feeling ill.
Workplace Safety and Legal Concerns
At the time of this writing, an employee who has COVID-19 or is in self-isolation as a result of possible exposure to the virus, is afforded the same discretion and is subject to the same procedures as an employee who is unable to work due to illness. In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act, 2000 provides that an eligible employee is entitled to take three days of unpaid sick leave for personal illness, injury, or medical emergency per calendar year. If however, an employee is refusing to work due to a fear of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace, the employer must respond in compliance with its legal duties under occupational health and safety legislation. In addition, under provincial workplace health and safety laws, employers have an obligation to take every reasonable measure to ensure a safe workplace.
In the face of this pandemic, employers should consider the degree by which their business could be disrupted, review and update workplace policies pertaining to transmittable illnesses, and assess the relevant legislation to ensure that they are aware of any probable legal consequences of any steps they may take.
How Employers Should Prepare
• encouraging good hygiene, including handwashing
• maintain good ventilation in the workplace
• have up-to-date sick or leave policies that are clearly communicated to staff
• encourage employees to stay home when they are sick
• allow for employees to work at home or in staggered shifts should they develop symptoms
• have a policy which requires individuals with flu symptoms to stay at home and not to report to work — this includes workers, contractors and visitors.