The World Health Organization has declared the Coronavirus, COVID-19, a global health emergency. In response, our clients have been increasingly contacting our office with various questions and concerns regarding the Coronavirus as it relates to employees and the workplace, and the steps an employer can and should be taking. Alberta employers have a legal obligation to provide employees with a safe workplace, which includes taking reasonable steps to mitigate against the potential spread of infectious diseases and illnesses. To assist Alberta employers in navigating their fulfillment of this legal duty, we have created the below "Coronavirus and the Workplace - Do's and Don'ts for Employers" cheat sheet.
Do: Develop a Coronavirus education and preventative measures initiative. This initiative should include educating employees on proper preventative measures, such as hand washing and hygiene. Employers should encourage their employees to frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer regularly when available, and follow proper coughing and sneezing etiquette. In connection, employers should also discuss with their employees that limiting the touching of their noses, mouths, and eyes with unwashed hands can help prevent and/or minimize the spread of illness and infectious disease.
Do: Monitor and stay up to date on the Coronavirus outbreak. Employers may want to appoint a coordinator who will be responsible for doing so. It is critical to remain informed and react accordingly. However…
Don’t: Overreact, and consequently, risk causing anxiety and concern in the workplace.
Do: Only refer to and rely upon official sources of information on the Coronavirus, such as the World Health Organization or the Government of Canada, when discussing the Coronavirus with your employees.
Do: Adopt reasonable, non-discriminatory screening procedures, including requiring employees to self-report if they have traveled to high risk Coronavirus areas and/or have been in close contact with other individuals who have traveled to such areas. Further, employers should instruct their employees to alert their employer if they start to feel ill or become sick, or if someone they have been in contact with is ill with a fever and/or is showing other Coronavirus symptoms. In these circumstances, employers should ensure the employee stays at home (with pay, if the employee is not currently presenting any signs of an illness) or consider working from home if possible.
Do: Place employees who have clear symptoms of acute respiratory illness (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) or present with a fever on medical leave immediately to seek medical assistance, in accordance with any existing sick leave policies. Medical clearance should be obtained prior to the employee returning to work.
Do: Be aware of and understand the law regarding employee privacy rights, leaves of absence, human rights, and other related employment rights to minimize the risk of potential exposure to liability. When unsure or in doubt, always play it safe and consult with legal counsel first.
Don’t: Implement overly broad and restrictive policies regarding employee travel, employee disclosure of medical information, mandatory quarantine etc. Whether or not an employer’s policies infringe upon an employee’s legal rights will depend on the specific circumstances of each situation. Again, legal counsel should be consulted.
Don’t: Take or threaten an employee with adverse employment consequences should an employee refuse to report to work because of concerns that a co-worker has travelled to (or has come into contact with someone else who has travelled to) a high risk Coronavirus area, or that a co-worker is showing signs of illness. Under Occupational Health and Safety law, employees have a right to refuse unsafe work. As such, the refusal to work must be taken seriously and the legislated OH&S process must be followed, which includes investigation of the matter prior to any other steps being taken.
Do: Understand and be mindful that the Coronavirus outbreak has created a potential for increased harassment in the workplace. Harassment in this context is typically in relation to an employee’s ethnic origin or disclosure of private information. If a workplace bullying issue occurs, employers should refer to their respectful workplace policies and be prepared to address the incident.