How should Canadian employers be responding to the coronavirus?

With three confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Canada, 40 potential cases under investigation and the World Health Organization declaring the virus an international public health emergency, unions — especially those representing transport and health-care workers — are calling on employers to ensure sufficient safety measures are in place.

The Ontario Nurses Union sent out a memo calling for all local joint health and safety committees to ensure employers of union members are taking significant precautions, including establishing all points of entry and how they’ll be restricted; determining other locations where workers could potentially be exposed to the virus, such as screening, triage and isolation rooms; and ensuring suitable structural barriers, such as floor-to-ceiling plexiglass. As well, committees will be looking into whether employers are equipped with adequate respirators and other specialized equipment.

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Health-care workers who are most likely to come into contact with someone with the virus, including paramedics and those working in acute care, are likely feeling stressed about the situation, says Michael Hurley, the president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions. “There hasn’t been enough done to prepare the workforce. We’ve been surveying our members and a number of them haven’t been fit-test for the N95 mask, which is supposed to happen every two years.”

Adequate equipment is essential to keeping employees safe, he adds, but so is simply informing all staff of pertinent information. During the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003, he recalls, a cleaner asked whether he should be wearing protective equipment to clean the room of a patient, but he was told it wasn’t necessary. Subsequently, when the patient was diagnosed with SARS, the custodian had to isolate himself from his family for a month.

“It’s so threatening to the well-being of these individuals because they’re not necessarily coming prepared.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees is also calling attention to the potential threat the virus poses to flight attendants, providing a number of recommendations to airlines. It asked that flight attendants and volunteer medical personnel be serviced with a sufficient supply of non-allergenic medical gloves and masks, and that they be allowed to wear them at any time during the flight without fear of reprisal. As well, the CUPE said airlines should establish procedures for how to optimally deal with passengers exhibiting signs of infectious disease, including ensuring they have sufficient masks and airtight sick bags, as well as a strategy for isolating them as much as possible.

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Currently, screening at airports in Canada appears to be somewhat lax, says Hurley. “It would be great to see adequate screening at the international airports in Canada — not with a view to excluding anyone from Canada, but from the perspective of getting people who may require testing.”

In workplaces with no particular risk of exposure to the virus, there are still steps employers can take, noted the Public Service Alliance of Canada in a release. Employers should be encouraging employees to wash their hands and also maintaining good ventilation and cleanliness in the workplace. They should also communicate clear sick leave policies to staff and encourage them to stay home if they have flu symptoms, said the PSAC, up to the point of not allowing those with these symptoms access to the workplace. Increased flexibility would also help, including allowing employees to work from home or in staggered shifts.

Regardless of what employers are able to do, the most important thing is that they’re effectively communicating any steps they’re taking to ensure a safe workplace to employees, as well as how they’re responding to any new coronavirus developments, says Sarah Eves, a partner and labour and employment lawyer at Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP. However, employers should be mindful not to over communicate, she adds.

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“You don’t want to be communicating to the point where people are overreacting. There seems to be a certain degree of unnecessary panic setting in . . . and I think, as an employer, you want to avoid that. You want to rely on concrete information in terms of what you’re communicating to employees and not misinformation.”

Employers also need to be mindful of human rights considerations in their communications. “They should be vigilant and keep up to date of information, but they should be careful of . . . not targeting certain ethnic groups,” says Eves. “We’ve seen a lot of that in the news about the Chinese community feeling discriminated against. You want to be careful that you’re not stigmatizing or . . . actually discriminating against the Asian community.”

On the benefits side, employees unable to work because of the coronavirus will likely be eligible to claim benefits under sick leave policies, including short- and long-term disability if the situation arises. But employers should review the wording of their sick leave benefits provisions to determine if they’re suitably broad to cover employees who need to be quarantined but aren’t actually ill. If they have that flexibility, employers will then need to decide whether they’ll pay sick leave benefits in that scenario. “Many employers would [likely do so] because you obviously want to encourage employees to take heed of whatever orders are out there without loss of income,” says Eves.

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Employers should also take into consideration whether they’ll require a doctor’s note if an employee is showing flu- or coronavirus-like symptoms, keeping in mind that these may be onerous to get when doctors and nurses are busy dealing with the virus. Employers can also use vacation time, or allow quarantined employees to work from home.

Under provincial workplace health and safety laws, employers have an obligation to take every reasonable step to ensure a safe workplace — and this applies to the coronavirus as well, says Eves. If employers know an employee has recently traveled to a high-risk area, it would be reasonable to encourage them to seek medical attention.

“If you have reason to believe an employee might have the coronavirus . . . you should communicate with the employee first, get some information and determine whether or not you need to send them home and contact public health,” she says.

If employers don’t take any action in that scenario, they could open themselves up to potential legal liability, including inspections from a provincial ministry of labour, fines under occupational health and safety legislation and union grievances.

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