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Business As Unusual: Navigating  Employee Exposure Concerns
May 7, 2020
Business As Unusual: Navigating Employee Exposure Concerns

Essential HR is bringing you a 5-part series examining all things people related that you should start planning for as your business re-opens its physical workspaces.   

Part 4: How will you handle employee concerns regarding exposure to COVID-19?

Provincial governments are preparing plans to re-open workplaces. However, it is clear that we won’t be returning to business as usual. From an HR perspective, there are workforce challenges and health and safety considerations that you should be thinking through prior to the re-opening of your business.

Upon their return to the workplace, employees will have varying degrees of anxiety about the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19 while at work. Or perhaps you have an employee who does not even want to return to work because of exposure concerns. Your obligation as an employer is to ensure that employees have a safe workplace. Listen to the employee’s concerns, explain what the company is doing to mitigate the risk that they are concerned about. Depending on the situation, a protected leave of absence might be the appropriate route for the employee to take.

Joint Health and Safety Committee’s Role

Do not brush off employee concerns about exposure to COVID-19. Treat concerns about exposure to the virus the same as you would an employee’s concern about any other health and safety hazard in the workplace. Employees can raise their concerns with their supervisor or health and safety representative. The health and safety committee may need to meet more frequently during the pandemic to identify hazards and propose solutions to management. 

Here's a compiled list of ways to reduce risk within physical work environments.

COVID-19 Related Work Refusals

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employees have a right to refuse work if they have a reasonable belief that the condition of the workplace is likely to endanger their health or safety. This includes the reasonable belief that they are exposed (or may be exposed) to the COVID-19.

  • Employers cannot discipline (or threaten to discipline) any employee who exercises their right to refuse.
  • In the event of a work refusal, follow your standard work refusal procedures including:
    • Conducting an investigation with a member of the management team and a representative from the Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC).
    • Ensuring that the employee is removed from the situation while the investigation is being completed (consider having them work from home if possible).

Employee Return to Workplace Concerns and Protected Leaves

Employees who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 may be hesitant to return to work. You may want to delay the return to the workplace for employees who have specific health concerns. In other situations, the employee may be able to apply for one of two COVID-19 related job-protected unpaid leaves.

Infectious Disease Emergencies Leave Criteria:

  • The employee is under medical investigation, supervision or treatment for COVID-19.
  • The employee is acting in accordance with an order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act.
  • The employee is in isolation or quarantine in accordance with public health information or direction.
  • The employer directs the employee not to work due to a concern that COVID-19 could be spread in the workplace.
  • The employee needs to provide care to a person for a reason related to COVID-19 such as a school or day-care closure.
  • The employee is prevented from returning to Ontario because of travel restrictions.

Declared Emergency Leave Criteria:

If an employee cannot perform their job duties as a result of a declared emergency under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA) and:

  • because of an order that applies to the employee under the EMCPA;
  • because of an order that applies to the employee under the Health Protection and Promotion Act;
  • because the employee is needed to provide care or assistance for a specified individual (as set out in The Act)

Check out more ways to rock your reopen and be ahead of your preparations:

Part 1: How do Employees Come Back?
Part 2: Keeping Employee’s Safe Upon Return
Part 3: There will be Childcare Problems
Part 4: Navigating Employee Exposure Concerns
Part 5: Training Through a Pandemic

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