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With the coronavirus pandemic rapidly evolving, the global employment landscape is facing unprecedented challenges.

Looking at short-term disability programs, benefits plans, human resources policies and legal obligations, Benefits Canada hosted a panel of experts in a webinar on March 19 to answer plan sponsor questions. Click here to find out what you missed.

For individuals diagnosed with coronavirus who can’t work from home, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association has agreed to waive any short-term disability waiting period, according to Joan Weir, the CLHIA’s director of health and disability policy. “The major difference from the insurance industry’s response, compared to the SARS crisis, is that 60 per cent of employees can do their work at home.”

Read: Employer responsibilities around benefits, pension provision during coronavirus

In addition to the shift in working environments, another big concern is layoffs, with many employers forced to cease operations because there isn’t any business coming in or they’ve been mandated to close by the government. “From a legal standpoint, unless required by law, I’m not aware of a province that requires, under its employment law statutes, benefits to continue during layoffs,” said Mark Rodrigue, partner in the employment and human rights group at Fasken LLP.

Employers have taken a combination of approaches to this problem, he added. Some are able to provide continued coverage during the downturn, some are offering to pay employee premiums and some are helping employees with deductions to recover money lost once they’re back at work. However, as time goes on, these initial strategies may be rethought, said Rodrigue, noting there could be an opportunity for insurers to work with employers and employees to provide some level of coverage.

When looking at workforce reductions and planning for benefits, some employees are going to be eligible for leaves of absence under new terms, he added, noting plan sponsors should be treating these as any other absence from work. Employers may have already laid off employees as immediate needs dictated, but as these new terms come live, they could put [employees] on leaves of absence, he said.

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

“Over the coming weeks, we’ll see what strategies are used by employers. We may be in for a bit of a rollercoaster as we adjust and decisions are made, reversed and changed to deal with the new and ever-changing law.”

In terms of absences, there are many reasons an employee may need to take time off during the coronavirus pandemic, said Kim Siddall, vice-president and local practice leader at Aon. Currently, the leaves to focus on are short- and long-term duration sick leaves, family caregiver leaves, family responsibility leaves, critical illness for minor children leaves and, potentially, bereavement leaves.

“The eligibility requirements and length of each leave vary by province and are designed to provide income-loss relief and job protections while Canadians tend to the health of their families and themselves,” she said.

While the traditional structure of the workplace has been lost during the pandemic, it doesn’t mean companies have to lose the ability to communicate, said Karen Adams, chief commercial and health innovation officer at Snapclarity. The visual component is crucial, she added, so employers should schedule online check-ins as a means of building connection and offer platforms for employees to share their anxieties instead of letting them fester in an environment without an open line of communication.

Read: How to support employees’ mental health during coronavirus

The ability to preventively help employees understand their risks and provide the right coping tools is vital, said Adams. For those who already have mental-health issues, they might be intensified during this time. “Being able to connect [plan members] to the right resources virtually is a huge opportunity for people to continue with their therapy and get the help they need to function during this pandemic.”

Find out what you missed by accessing the full webinar here.

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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