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Responding to COVID-19: A Guide for Employers
March 29, 2020
Responding to COVID-19: A Guide for Employers

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic puts employers in unchartered waters. Essential HR can assist you navigate the complexities of the evolving situation. Below are general recommendations for best practices that employers can use to address the issues surrounding employee relations and maintaining the health and safety of employees during the pandemic. 

 Visitor Policies

During the pandemic, visitors to your workplace present a large risk to the health and safety of your employees. Consider taking the following measures: 

  • Limit or ban visitors on company property until March 31, 2020. This date may be extended depending on the general status of the pandemic. 
  • If the company chooses to allow visitors, they must be essential to the operations of the business. Visitors should be approved by the appropriate authority within your company and subject to an acceptable completed visitor disclosure prior to being allowed inside. Refer to the COVID-19 Visitor Questionnaire.

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  • If banning visitors, post signage that indicates that you are “closed to visitors” and information regarding shipping/receiving or other pertinent customer information should be posted at all entrances and exits.

Employee Policies and Procedures During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The health of employees must be the top priority of any company. Consider taking the following measures as precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in your workplace:

  • Mandate that any employees whose job allows them, to work from home.
  • Ask employees who use public transit to get to work to use other available options such as Uber or Taxis for the time being with financial support from the Company. 
  • Reduce in-person conversations within the office by using phones, chat features, or video conferencing. 
  • Maintain a 2-meter distance between employees. Whenever possible, meetings with more than two people in an office should be done in the board room or in an alternate location that has available space to keep a further distance apart.
  • Stagger employee lunch breaks. Re-configure the lunchroom so that it encourages space to be left between individuals. For example, reduce the number of chairs per table and space tables further apart. 
  • Require anyone who is returning from out-of-country travel to remain out of the office and self-quarantine for 14 days. 
  • Require anyone who has an individual within their household who is returning from out-of-country travel to disclose it to the company and they may be required to remain out of the office for 14 days. 
  • If an employee is sick with any type of cold or flu symptoms, require them to stay home until they are symptom-free. If they suspect that they may have contracted the virus, suggest that they reach out to www.ontario.ca/coronavirus for an online assessment.
  • If an employee’s family member is sick with cold or flu symptoms, ask that they use common sense judgement and disclose this situation prior to coming into the office.
  • If business operations permit, allow employees to create a flexible schedule in order to care for dependents during closures. For example, a flexible schedule could include:
  • Opting to work an evening shift in order to care for a dependent during the day,
  • Choosing to work 10-12 hour shifts 3-4 days a week in order to have additional days off.
  • Encourage employees who may be at an increased risk of severe symptoms if they contract COVID 19 to self-disclose their medical background. If they have concerns regarding their health during this time, review arrangements for unpaid time off, vacation or emergency days to be used if they wish to self-isolate or mitigate their time in the workplace by reducing their hours.   
  • Encourage employees who may feel anxious about the pandemic to contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) by phone. 

Remember, all employees are entitled to a workplace free from Violence, Harassment, and Discrimination. This includes times of pandemic and uncertainty. It is unacceptable to treat employees, customer, vendors, agents, and/or suppliers differently, or assume they may be infected with COVID-19 based on their race, place of origin, citizenship, ethnic origin, or ancestry.

Facility Management and Other Health and Safety Measures

  • Increase cleaning schedules throughout the workday (kitchen, doors, elevator buttons, high touchpoint areas, washrooms etc.)
  • Encourage employees to leave doors open whenever possible to increase ventilation (lunchroom, offices, etc). 
  • Take and record employee temperatures 2-3x daily.
  • Implement mandatory hand sanitizing (including all handheld items such as bags and phones) upon arrival, lunch and exit of the building.
  • Eliminate shared keyboards, POS systems or any other workstations and tools.
  • Additional sanitization of items where there is multiple persons using equipment.
  • If employees are required to interact with the public, create barriers such as counters, desks or screens that separate the employee from the public by 2 meters. 

 Compensation for Time off Work due to COVID-19

Financial strain can amplify employees’ stress related to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers must balance their position as a supportive employer with the pressure of maintaining the best fiscal interest of the company. 

Note: Provincial and/or federal governments may make announcements regarding funding for businesses or changes to Employment Insurance.

Payment for employees:

If employees choose to self-isolate and are not able to work from home, you may choose to address the compensation in one of the following ways:

  • Allow the employee to use their emergency, personal or vacation days
  • Allow the employee to take an unpaid leave of absence
  • Pay the employee their regular salary as if they were at work

If employees have any cold or flu symptoms, you may consider giving them the options of:

  • Using their emergency, personal or vacation days
  • Applying for Short Term disability if your company has such a plan. However, there is no guarantee that their claim would be approved by the insurance company if not medically prescribed.
  • Applying for Employment Insurance (55% of salary up to a maximum salary of $54,200). There is no waiting period and no doctor’s note is required.

If employees are told by medical professionals that they are required to quarantine due to being with or around an individual diagnosed with COVID 19, they have the option of:

  • Using their emergency, personal or vacation days
  • Applying for Short Term disability if your company has such a plan. There is a greater likelihood that these claims would be approved but are subject to the Insurance company’s decision.
  • If extended benefits are not accessible, apply for EI.

New COVID-19 Employment Legislation

In response to the pandemic, the government has proposed new legislation (that is likely to pass) as follows: 

Job protection for employees who cannot work because: 

  • They are under medical investigation, supervision or treatment for COVID-19. 
  • They are acting in accordance with an order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act. 
  • They are in isolation or quarantine. 
  • They are acting in accordance with public health information or direction. 
  • Their employer has directed them not to work. 
  • They need to provide care to a person for a reason related to COVID-19 such as a school or day-care closure.

The legislation would also make it illegal for employers to require medical documentation for medical leaves of absence, retroactive to January 25th, 2020 (the date that the first presumptive COVID-19 case was identified in Ontario).

Terminations

While employees will be protected from termination owing to medical circumstances (see above), employers will continue to have the right to terminate employees as a result of economic circumstances. Be aware that common-law notice periods might be extended in the event of an economic downturn as the expectation of the time required to find new employment will be greater. Employers must still comply with all applicable termination clauses within their employment contracts, and the Employment Standards Act, 2000. The Government of Canada has announced that employment insurance benefits will be available immediately.

Voluntary Work Sharing Agreements

Voluntary work-sharing agreements which can reduce the work-week of multiple employees by up to 60%. If accepted by Service Canada, employment insurance benefits will make up some or all of the employee’s lost income. Work-sharing agreements as a result of COVID-19 impacts may be extended up to a maximum of 76 weeks. More information on the requirements can be found at https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/work-sharing/guide-applicant.html#hf5

*Workshare agreements must be submitted 30 days before they are to be implemented. Though processing is being expedited to approximately 10 days, you must have approval before implementing the program.

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 Coronavirus.

  • 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).

Essential HR understand the challenges you are facing as an employer. Contact us today and let us help you through this challenging time.

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