18 March 2020
Employment Obligations During the COVID-19 Crisis
On March 17, 2020, the Province of British Columbia declared COVID-19 a “public health emergency”. The realities of a global pandemic could not be foreseen just a couple of months ago. Now, it is impossible to read the news or scroll through a social media feed without being overwhelmed with information about the pandemic.
Among the issues created by the public health emergency are the significant workplace disruptions that British Columbia employees and employers are now required to navigate. While these frustrations will be temporary, workers and employers have important roles to play in maximizing public health throughout this crisis.
Employers should recognize their statutory duty to ensure the safety of their employees pursuant to section 115 of British Columbia’s Workers Compensation Act. What a safe workplace means will depend on the nature of the work and the physical space. For example, in the case of restaurants, bars and cafes, if patrons cannot be kept one or two meters apart, they must close or move to takeout and delivery services.
Employers are encouraged to limit employee contact by allowing their staff to work from home if possible, substitute large in-person meetings with telephone conferences and encourage sick workers to stay home. Employers can also take a strong preventative role by providing disinfectant wipes for workplace surfaces and hand sanitizer to limit the possible spread of the virus. Employers can also develop policies and procedures for employees that are working remotely to ensure a smooth transition away from their normal workspaces.
Meanwhile, employees also have obligations to take reasonable care to protect their health and safety and those who might be affected by their work. This includes their coworkers and clients. Employees must comply with section 116 of the Workers Compensation Act which sets out their statutory responsibilities as they relate to health and safety. Employees may also refuse to perform unsafe work pursuant to section 3.12 of British Columbia’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulation.
There may be issues where employees, who appear to be completely healthy, refuse to attend work. Employers should recognize that there may be several justifiable reasons for these refusals. For example, the employee may be self-isolating, having come in contact with a symptomatic individual, or they may have recently travelled out of the country. The employee may also, in fact, be feeling unwell and taking precautionary measures despite their appearance.
Employers should be cautious in their response given the current environment and remember that this global emergency is temporary. Responses to employees that isolate themselves from the workplace must be measured and will naturally depend on the context. Certainly, in light of the seriousness of the global health crisis, there should be no insinuation, suggestion or practice that employees will be punished for undertaking reasonable preventative measures in good faith even if that means temporarily avoiding workspaces.
Employees should likewise ensure the safety of the workplace by complying with an employer’s requests where they are reasonable. For example, workers should wash their hands regularly and maintain the recommended one to two-meter distance from others where possible. Workers should also complete BC’s self-assessment tool to determine whether or not they should attend a hospital, stay home, or simply self-monitor for symptoms.
The federal and provincial governments have both announced support for British Columbia workers and employers. The federal government has announced an Economic Response Plan which, among other things, allows flexibility for filing taxes, and provides a wage subsidy for small employers.
The provincial government is planning to amend the Employment Standards Act to prevent workers from being laid off if they are required to stay at home to self-isolate. Developments continue as the story evolves.
COVID-19 presents a once-in-a-generation challenge to employers and employees. It is in everyone’s interest to stay calm and recognize that these novel challenges will eventually reach a conclusion. If there are further medical questions British Columbia has established a hotline for COVID-19 information at 1-888-COVID19 or via text at 604-630-0300.
If you require employment law guidance regarding the impacts of COVID-19 on your business, please contact our Employment Law Team via Micah Goldberg, Employment Law Lawyer.