Coronavirus: Questions and Answers for Employers
Date: January 27, 2020
As we learn more about the Novel Coronavirus (2019-vCoV or Coronavirus), employers will no doubt be contemplating the potential implications of this virus on their workplaces. We have set out below some of the emerging questions that employers may have right now and our answers and guidelines for how to address these issues.
For more information on the range of legal issues that arise in situations such as this, please read our FTR Now “Coronavirus Update: What Employers Need to Know Right Now.”
Q: Can an employer require an employee who has recently visited China to remain at home for a period of time upon their return?
A: No quarantine orders or directives have been issued by the health authorities at this time. At the same time, it is becoming apparent that individuals who have recently visited Wuhan, China have a heightened risk of contracting the Coronavirus.
In these circumstances, it is likely reasonable for you to ask employees who have recently returned from the area of the outbreak to remain away from the workplace for a period of time until it can be safely determined that the employee does not have the Coronavirus.
However, in the absence of public health directives requiring certain individuals to undergo quarantine, there is an increased risk of employment litigation (e.g. grievances, human rights complaints, constructive dismissal/layoff claims) if employees are sent home without pay, or required to use up their vacation or other accrued lieu time. If you are requiring an employee to remain at home, you should continue to pay the employee’s wages and benefits for the lost time. If possible, you should also explore arrangements that would allow the employee to continue to work from home.
Q: Can an employee insist on wearing protective equipment – for example, a face mask?
A: This answer depends on the reasonableness of the risk to the employee in question. Where, for example, an employee has direct contact with individuals known to have, or likely to have, contracted the Coronavirus (for example, a healthcare worker), this could likely be considered a “reasonable precaution.”
If an employee does not have this type of heightened risk, and has duties that involve interactions only with fellow employees or the general public, protective equipment is likely unwarranted at this time.
However, you should continue to diligently monitor the situation. If there is evidence that the Coronavirus is beginning to spread more readily throughout the general population, a demand for protective equipment may indeed become a reasonable precaution.
Q: Can an employer restrict employee travel?
A: You can place restrictions on an employee’s business-related travel.
In some cases, an employee may wish to refuse a travel assignment to Wuhan, China or other high risk places. You would have to assess these situations carefully, and may need to consider postponing such business travel until the public health situation has improved. Global Affairs Canada continues to advise against non-essential travel to the province of Hubei, China, including the cities of Wuhan, Huanggang and Ezhou.
The question of leisure travel is more problematic. It is possible – in some limited circumstances – that you could have a legitimate interest in trying to limit leisure travel, particularly where the travel could have a negative impact on business operations. However, a better approach at present would be to ensure that employees who are travelling understand the potential risks to themselves and others should they visit a high-risk area.
Q: Should employers be communicating with their employees about the possible risks of the Coronavirus?
A: Yes. You are encouraged to communicate with employees to assure them that you are addressing the situation, are taking steps to best ensure a safe workplace and are actively monitoring and responding to developments as they occur.
Q. Where can I find further information on the Coronavirus?
A: For further information on the Coronavirus and pandemic planning, go to:
- Public Health Ontario
- The World Health Organization
- Public Health Agency of Canada
- Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care Public Information Site
- The Public Health Agency of Canada 24-hour hotline: 1-800-454-8302.
- The Government of Canada’s site to help people prepare personally for emergencies.
Editor’s Note: The government of Ontario has also published information on the Coronavirus, dated as of January 28, 2020 and to be updated on an ongoing basis as information develops.
The article in this client update provides general information and should not be relied on as legal advice or opinion. This publication is copyrighted by Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP and may not be photocopied or reproduced in any form, in whole or in part, without the express permission of Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP. ©