The World Health Organization recently declared novel coronavirus (“coronavirus”) a global health emergency. Countries across the world are taking precautions to prevent the spread of the infectious virus.
In light of the current situation and potential for escalation, employers should be cognizant of their workplace duties relating to these types of health scares.
Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe working environment, and in the context of the coronavirus this entails ensuring a sanitary and healthy workplace. The following list are measures employers should take to facilitate this obligation and help prevent the virus from spreading:
- Provide information to employees about symptoms, risks, and preventative measures associated with coronavirus. The BC Centre for Disease Control and Public Health Agency of Canada are official health sources that have readily available and up to date information.
- Encourage good health practices, such as frequent hand washing (with soap for at least 20 seconds), covering the mouth and nose with an arm when coughing or sneezing, using hand sanitizer, and staying at home when sick.
- Provide resources necessary to maintain a healthy environment. Set up hand sanitizer stations and containers with disinfectant wipes throughout the workplace.
- Review cleaning policies to ensure equipment and the workplace are being disinfected regularly.
- Accommodate alternate work arrangements for sick employees or employees at high risk of infection.
- Update emergency contact information.
Absences from work
To safeguard against the spread of coronavirus, employers should make it clear to their employees they will not be penalized for missing work if they are ill.
Under the employment standards legislation in British Columbia, employees are entitled to unpaid leaves of absences if they become sick or if a family member becomes sick and they need to take care of them. As well, employees may have a contractual entitlement to sick leave under their employment agreement.
If an employee is exhibiting signs of the virus and has recently visited a place where cases of coronavirus have been identified such as Wuhan, China, they should be denied access to the workplace and granted a leave of absence.
Discrimination and Harassment
Employees subject to discrimination in the workplace based on perceived disability, race, colour, ancestry, or place of origin may have a claim for discrimination.
Employers have a duty under human rights and employment legislation to keep workplaces free from discrimination and harassment. In light of the coronavirus, employers must guard against harmful assumptions and stereotypes that may arise out of a mistaken perception that a certain type of person is more likely to carry the virus.
Employers should have a system for employees to take complaints of discrimination or harassment, and employees should be made aware of that system.
Plan and Prepare
Employers should stay up to date on the status of the virus and have a plan in place in the event the situation escalates to a pandemic status. Employers should consider:
- Whether the business will continue to operate? If so, what is required (resources, staff, supplies, etc.) to continue operation?
- What will happen if an essential staff member is sick or needs to take leave?
- How will employers communicate critical information to employees during an emergency?
- Who will be necessary for implementation of the plan?
As the coronavirus spreads, employers continue to have the same obligations under employment, privacy, human rights, occupational health and safety, and workers compensation legislations. Even in the midst of panic, employers must ensure the safety of the workplace while also treating all employees fairly and respectfully.
If you have questions regarding how coronavirus might affect your workplace or obligations as an employer, contact Scott Marcinkow at email@example.com, Rose Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org, or anyone else from our team listed on the Authors page.
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