Sounding Board: When is coronavirus considered work-related?

With the World Health Organization declaring the novel coronavirus a pandemic, Canadian employers should prepare for the worst and plan how to respond to various employment-related issues that could arise if the virus continues to spread.

Employers are raising many questions about workers’ compensation coverage and reporting responsibilities. Throughout Canada, the various provincial workers’ compensation boards have provided guidelines relating to the coverage of benefits for coronavirus cases. Since most instances of coronavirus aren’t work-related and don’t need to be reported to these board, they acknowledge that there may be a few exceptions based on the nature of employment and the extent of exposure to the source of infection.

Read: Considerations around employee safety, privacy, leave during the coronavirus crisis

In every case, the various provincial WCBs are likely to adjudicate work-relatedness and benefits entitlement based on the specific circumstances of each case.

TeksMed Services Inc. has outlined general answers to some of the questions its plan sponsor clients are asking during this pandemic.

  • When is coronavirus considered to be work-related?

When an employee contracts coronavirus as a direct result of their employment, they’re likely to be entitled to compensation providing certain criteria relating to the nature of their employment and the extent of their work-related exposure are met.

Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Board has outlined that the following conditions must be met: the nature of employment involves sufficient exposure to the source of infection; and the nature of employment is shown to be the cause of the condition; or the nature of employment creates a greater risk of exposure for the worker.

A work-related example would be an acute care hospital worker. They have patients coming in for treatment of the coronavirus. As a result, they’re at a greater risk than the general public of contracting it.

A non work-related example would be a hospital cafeteria worker. Their job isn’t directly related to looking after sick people, even if they sometimes come in contact with other hospital employees.

  • If an employer believes their employees are at greater risk than the general public of exposure at work (typically acute health-care field), do they need to report all exposures?

No, employers only need to report lost-time claims of occupational disease exposure to their provincial WCBs. If employees were exposed to the virus but develop no symptoms, the incident should be recorded in their records but employers don’t need to report it to the provincial WCBs.

  • Where an employer whose staff is at greater public risk of exposure at work and they sent an employee home because of that high risk of exposure, do they need to report it to the provincial WCBs?

No, if there’s no illness, there’s no claim.

  • When does an employer have to report a coronavirus case to their provincial WCB?

Like in the examples provided earlier, if an employee is at greater risk than the general public of contracting the virus while at work and they lose time from work after contracting the virus, the claim has to be reported to the provincial WCB. However, if employees aren’t at greater risk than the general public of contracting the infection, there’s most likely no need to report.

  • Does an employer report cases where one staff member caught coronavirus from a co-worker?

No, coronaviruses can be caught through contacts in the community, home or work.

  • Are employees covered when quarantined, self-isolated or practicing social distancing?

No, the provincial WCBs don’t provide coverage for workers who are symptom-free when quarantined, self-isolated, practicing social distancing or sent home on a precautionary basis.

  • What happens if an employee is exposed to coronavirus while travelling?

Employees will likely be able to claim benefits if symptoms follow exposure during any work-related travel. Entitlement to benefits extends to people travelling in the course of employment. As such, if an employee is required to travel for business and in the course of that travel is suspected to have contracted coronavirus, the employee could likely claim benefits.

  • What happens when an employer submits a coronavirus claim?

Like any other claim, the provincial WCB must determine whether exposure to the disease arose out of the course of employment and was caused by an employment hazard — in this case, workplace exposure to the virus.

Read: A refresher on Canada’s leave policies as coronavirus escalates

Will an employee continue to receive benefits if the employer shuts down operations due to the coronavirus?

Certain provincial WCBs — for example, Ontario’s Workplace Safety Insurance Board — have specified that employees will continue to receive the same wage-loss benefits, full or partial, that were being received at the time of the employer’s shut down. If no wage-loss benefits were received at the time of shut down — for example, in cases where modified duties are being performed — then no wage-loss benefits would be provided.

Please note that the coronavirus pandemic is an ever-changing global event that may impact the stance of the Canadian government as well as the various provincial WCBs, so updates will be provided when new information is made available.

Tony Culhane is president and chief executive officer of TeksMed Services Inc.