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Employee communications best practices when it comes to COVID-19

As Canadians are gearing up to travel abroad for winter vacations or business trips, many organizations are facing tough questions about how to protect employees and prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). While the risks remain low in Canada, we are seeing more global cases of infection every day. What steps can employers take when it comes to employee safety?

To learn more about best practices in employee relations and policies with respect to a disease like COVID-19, we spoke with Matthew R. Letson and Kelly VanBuskirk, labour relations experts at the Lawson Creamer law firm, who provided helpful insights about what employers should be thinking about as they effectively communicate company policies.

Can organizations order an infected employee to stay home?

Typically, yes. Employers have to take their obligations under occupational health and safety legislation into account. Allowing an employee with a highly contagious illness to work in proximity to others presents a health and safety risk in the workplace. By ordering an employee to stay home, the employer is attempting to protect other workers.

How does an order to stay home impact compensation?

This is more challenging. The best approach, if possible, is to permit working from home with full pay. If that is impossible, employment insurance sick benefits or short-term disability coverage may be available to the employee. In the absence of any such coverage, employment standards legislation can provide direction. A prominent liability risk arises if the employee wants to remain at work while the employer wants to remove the employee from the workplace. If the employee is forced to leave without pay, a claim for constructive dismissal could occur.

Can organizations dismiss an employee who is sick with the coronavirus?

No, not initially. An employer must comply with the terms of its written employment agreements, policies and disability insurance plans or, in the absence of these, with employment standards legislation that provides sick time.

What can employers do if an employee asks for a leave to care for a family member who has contracted coronavirus?

Employees may qualify to take extended leave from work to care for a critically ill family member. In most provinces, there are protected leave periods that allow employees to take time off work without pay and possibly access employment insurance benefits to provide family care. An employee cannot be dismissed or discriminated against while on one of these leaves. Employers and employees should consult their province’s employment standards or labour standards departments for specific information about available leaves.

Can an employee refuse to travel for work to a country/region with an outbreak of coronavirus?

Possibly. Occupational health and safety legislation provides employees with the right to refuse dangerous work. If the risk of infection in the area to which the employee is required to travel is high enough, that employee may be justified in engaging the right to refuse. Employers should monitor the Government of Canada’s travel advice page for information about the risks in specific destinations.

Can an organization require an employee to disclose a diagnosis of coronavirus or plans to travel to a country/region with an outbreak of coronavirus?

Likely, yes. In non-unionized workplaces, employers should consider adopting policies that require such disclosure. In unionized workplaces, employers should work with the union to develop such policies to ensure any privacy concerns are appropriately addressed.

Conclusion

For many organizations, it’s business as usual—but this could change quickly. If you haven’t dusted off your business continuity plan in a while, now may be the time to consider how you would handle a confirmed case of coronavirus. Clearly communicating your corporate policies, testing your emergency plans, and ensuring this information is communicated clearly and transparently to your employees, will go a long way to mitigate the risk of escalation of the issue.

Our COVID-19 communications team comprised of crisis communications experts across Canada is ready to help organizations prepare and think about how to effectively communicate company policies and approaches to managing coronavirus-related incidents.

Learn more about our COVID-19 communications team: