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An Employer’s Guide to Managing the Coronavirus in the Workplace
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While the public risk associated with the Coronavirus in Canada is still considered low, employers should prepare antidotes for the various workplaces issues that arise in the wake of large-scale threats to health. Below are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) and answers to help employers manage concerns relating to the Coronavirus in their workplace. 

Can an employee stay home from work if they or a family member has any flu-like symptoms?

Employment agreements or policies may provide an employee with a contractual entitlement to sick days, which they can exercise if they develop symptoms associated with Coronavirus, or other flu-like symptoms. The Alberta Employment Standards Code (“ESC”) also provides employees with up to 5 days of unpaid personal and family responsibility leave in each calendar year for the health benefit of themselves or a family member. As a result, employees experiencing flu-like symptoms may use these sick days to seek medical attention, convalesce, or provide care for an affected family member.

As discussed below, employers may wish to ask employees experiencing flu-like symptoms to stay home as a precautionary measure to avoid the spread of any virus, including Coronavirus.

What preventative measures should an employer put in place?

The Government of Canada and Alberta Health Services websites advise all Canadians to ensure they carry out the following common-sense precautions to protect against respiratory illness, including the flu and Coronavirus:

  • Use good hygiene practices, such as frequent handwashing
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available
  • Practice proper cough and sneeze etiquette
  • Monitor your health, and
  • Contact your primary health provider or 811 Health Link if you have questions or concerns about your health.

Can employers send communications to their employees about Coronavirus and precautionary measures?

Employers can provide employees with information about Coronavirus from official sources. It is also appropriate to remind employees of applicable company policies such as sick days, work from home policies, “stay away if sick” policies, and, of course, pandemic policies.

Employers should remember that employee personal information, including health information, should be kept confidential. While employers can collect, use and disclose information about an employee’s health, such disclosure must be reasonable in the circumstances and the employer must provide notice of disclosure to the employee.

What if an employee returned from travel to China?

Employers should start by ascertaining whether there is a reasonable possibility that the employee could have been exposed to Coronavirus during their travels. In particular, employers should ask whether the employee had contact with anyone who is believed to have Coronavirus, whether the employee is experiencing any Coronavirus symptoms (i.e. headache, cough, sore throat, runny nose, fever), and whether the employee travelled to Wuhan, China in the 14 days prior to the onset of these symptoms. If the employee answers “yes” to any of these questions, the employee should seek immediate medical attention. The employer then has a few options to limit the potential exposure of the remaining workforce to Coronavirus or Coronavirus-related symptoms, as outlined below.

In the event that an employee contracts the Coronavirus and develops a need for a longer absence from work, eligible employees are entitled to up to 16 weeks of long-term illness and injury leave each calendar year pursuant to the ESC. Employers must grant this statutory unpaid leaves to eligible employees and provide the same or equivalent job back when the employee returns to work. Further, employers should also provide any contractual sick leave obligations outlined in employment agreements or policies.

What precautionary measures can employers take?

  • Education:

Employers can educate employees about the common-sense precautions that can be taken to avoid the transmission of Coronavirus.

  • Self-quarantine: 

The employer and employee may come to an agreement regarding a work from home arrangement in order to ensure an employee has not contracted Coronavirus. A self-quarantine arrangement may be particularly helpful where an employee has returned from affected areas but has not yet experienced any Coronavirus symptoms.

  • Ask employees to stay home: 

If employers have a reasonable basis to believe an employee may have been exposed to Coronavirus, the employer may request the employee work from home for a 14-day period (the incubation period of Coronavirus based on current information) or provide medical clearance to return to work. Where working from home is not possible, employers should pay their employees during the absence to avoid any allegations of discrimination based on illness.

Employees who refuse to stay home when ordered to do so may be prevented from entering the workplace and may be disciplined in accordance with existing employment agreements and policies.

What if an employee is afraid of getting the Coronavirus at work? 

Both employers and workers must take reasonable care to protect the health and safety of the worker and other workers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”).

Employees can refuse work if they believe on reasonable grounds that there is a dangerous condition at the work site or that the work constitutes a danger to their health and safety. If an employee refuses to come to work due to fear of contracting the Coronavirus, employers must respond by carrying out an investigation and, if applicable, take action to eliminate the danger in accordance with the OHSA. In order to determine if the refusal is reasonable, employers can rely on the scientific information available on the Coronavirus on the Alberta Health Services website and should work with a designated health and safety representative (or committee). While employers investigate the refusal, employers should remember that the worker is entitled to the same wages and benefits that they would have received if they had continued to work. Reprisal against employees exercising a work refusal, such as termination, is prohibited under the OHSA.

Can an employer terminate an employee due to illness, such as Coronavirus? 

No, employers may not terminate or discriminate against an employee due to physical disability (including illness) under human rights legislation. Employers are obligated to accommodate the employee to the point of ‘undue hardship.’

What if multiple employees call in sick to work and an employer needs healthy employees to work more to compensate? 

Equally as important as managing sick employees is the effective management of healthy employees. In the face of a potential pandemic, it is important not to overwork any healthy workers. The ESC outlines all requirements governing overtime and additional hours that may be required of healthy workers. Employers should remember that if an employee’s hours are extended, the hours should only be increased to the extent necessary to avoid serious interference with the ordinary working of a business, undertaking or other activity.

What can an employer tell employees about international travel? 

As of January 31, 2020, the Government of Canada has posted a travel advisory recommending the avoidance of all non-essential travel to China due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus. More specifically, the Government of Canada website recommends avoiding all travel to the Hubei province, including Wuhan, Huanggang and Ezhoue, due to heavy travel restrictions imposed in attempts to limit the spread of Coronavirus.                       

Employers should discourage employees from traveling to affected areas for business. Further, employers should encourage employees to disclose any voluntary travel to affected areas and advise employees that their return to work after such travel will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

What if there is a Coronavirus outbreak in Canada? 

The Government of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer is responsible for briefing, advising and managing any public health emergency, such as a virus outbreak. Coordinated efforts will be made by all Canadian jurisdictions in order to share information and plan outbreak responses. In addition, Alberta’s Public Health Act will govern any requisite emergency measures in the event an outbreak occurs.

How do I stay up to date on the Coronavirus? 

The World Health Organization continues to update information regarding the Coronavirus and outbreaks worldwide.

The Government of Canada has included up to date travel advisories for countries worldwide, including China. Updated information can be found here.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) is updating their page daily (as necessary) with relevant information on the Coronavirus.

As of January 31, 2020, there have only been 18 completed tests for the Coronavirus in Alberta, all of which have been negative. This statistic will be continually updated here.

If you have any questions about managing the Coronavirus or other potential pandemics in your workplace, the lawyers in Field Law’s Labour and Employment Group are available to answer your questions and advise you and/or your organization.