The topic on everyone’s mind and in all the news/social media feeds is of course COVID-19, especially now that it has been declared a pandemic. There has been much information provided about the risks and steps workplaces should take and we know that navigating that influx is probably overwhelming. We hope the following will summarize the key points and help support your organization in doing what it can to prepare for COVID-19 and protect employees and keep operations going productively.

Steps Everyone Should Take to prepare for Covid-19

  • Most importantly, keep your wits about you; this is real, but panicking won’t help
  • Stay informed, but ideally avoid checking up-to-the-minute statistics and social media
  • Stay home if you’re sick
  • Know the facts, wash your hands frequently and follow other hygiene protocol
  • Be kind, supportive and respectful. There are lots of jokes and videos circulating on social media, many of which do seem extreme, but keep in mind that people are reacting out of fear and we all respond to fear and stress differently

Steps Employers Should Take

Prepare a formal communication that addresses the points and protocol below. In doing so, and to help navigate some of these points, first consider the following questions:

  • How reasonable and realistic it is for employees to work remotely?
  • What are the indicators that your workplace is now in a higher state of risk? (e.g. employees returning from travel in countries under travel advisory, employee who have tested positive)
  • What are the risks to other employees? (e.g. degree of contact)
  • What steps can be taken to minimize risk at the workplace? (increased cleaning measures, etc.)

From there, address the following, where applicable:

  • If employees are experiencing flu or cold like symptoms, they should stay home; where necessary, they should seek appropriate medical treatment (keeping in mind that will be difficult, unless symptoms are serious)
  • If employees have been exposed to COVID-19, they should stay home and tell you immediately
  • Employees should tell you if they or someone they live with (or have regular close contact with) has plans to or has recently traveled to/from an area with a COVID-19 travel advisory in place
  • Confirm that you will take reasonable precautions and that you will follow any protocol required by health and safety or other legislation to ensure employees are protected
  • Where possible and when it makes to do so (e.g. in the case of a self-imposed quarantine due to possible exposure), allow employees to work remotely
  • Clarify the paid and unpaid leave available to employees who are ill, as well as those who have chosen not to come in due to their own concerns (see FAQ)
  • Take extra measures to sanitize your office (e.g. cleaners sanitizing door handles, etc.)
  • With the potential of greater measures being put in place as things progress, develop or update your business contingency plans (including getting prepared now for more remote work options, if that’s possible for your business)

As this will continue to evolve, carry out ongoing and regular communication with employees, encouraging them to share their questions and concerns.

Navigating the Grey Areas

Our legal counsel has put together a communication piece regarding many of the FAQs employers have. Of course, there is much grey area and other decisions individual employers must make.

Paying employees (or not) if you need to quarantine due to COVID-19

While the steps may be clearer if someone in your workplace has been diagnosed with COVID-19, it’s less clear how to handle imposed quarantines in terms of paying employees. If your organization needs to impose a closure, the ideal scenario is paying employees for the 14-day quarantine period; however, we appreciate that this isn’t feasible for all employers. The alternative is that everyone is on sick leave, and utilizes what they have available and/or receives an ROE for sick leave, so they can apply for Employment Insurance (keeping in mind that the one-week waiting period has been waived, but also that processing times will likely be long, and it will depend on their individual eligibility).

Communicating to employees if there has been a potential exposure

One of the other grey areas is related to employees who have been potentially exposed (e.g. was at a public place where someone with COVID-19 was also at), is not exhibiting symptoms but has chosen a self-imposed quarantine. How should employers communicate and handle this regarding the rest of the team?

While it is important to be cognizant of medical privacy and maintaining confidentiality, given the unique circumstances, the impact of possible spread of the virus (regarding illness and potential liability) is greater. If there has been possible exposure, but no symptoms (and an employee has taken steps to quarantine themselves for example), while employers are under no obligation to communicate to their staff, there are clear reasons why you may want to. In this case, it would be important to explain to the exposed employee what you are going to communicate and ideally seek their permission first. However, in communicating to your staff, it’s equally important to balance this out with a level-headed and fact-based approach to prevent undue fear and panic.

Handling employees who choose not to come in

In certain circumstances, employees may choose to not come in due to their own personal concern (e.g. because someone was potentially exposed) or perhaps because they live with vulnerable individuals. They should be supported to make their own decisions in these circumstances, but that in most cases (unless they are able to productively work from home), this would be considered unpaid or vacation time (or other forms of applicable leave you may provide). In this example, you would not be under any obligation to pay.

We know these points can’t possibly address all of the questions and concerns on everyone’s mind, especially given the evolving nature of this pandemic. These are uncharted waters and we need to be confident that our health professionals and government are making the right decisions for the health and safety of us all. Despite not being health professionals, what we DO know is that, in addition to being reasonably prepared, we also need to stay logical and live our lives. As Dr. Abdu Sharkawy (an infectious disease expert) recently said: “Being prepared does not mean you have to be scared. Being concerned doesn’t mean you have to panic. And being both scared and panicked doesn’t mean you can’t seek an avenue to cope with the uncertainty that COVID-19 is undoubtedly causing.”