COVID-19 Returning to the Workplace FAQ
As Government restrictions lift across the country and employers begin to recall their employees back to the office, organizations are now faced with a new challenge of keeping operations going while minimizing the risk to employees. The health and safety of the workforce is now top priority and organizations will have to make changes to their policy manuals, processes and procedures and the physical workspace. Employers and Employees will need time to adapt to returning to the workplace.
To help you navigate our new environment we have put together a FAQ on returning to the workplace.
Question 1: How can your organization prepare to re-open?
- Review vacation schedule to ensure that there is enough coverage when the office reopens and employees are back to work.
- Review your existing employment agreements and amend to provide flexibility for any future shutdown. Provide employees with the new or amended policies before they return to the office and require sign off from the employee. It may be necessary to provide reasonable consideration if asking employees to sign an amended employment agreement.
- Consider preparing the following policies post pandemic
- health and safety measures to reduce risk
- Hygiene and Sanitation
- Screening (employees and visitors to the office)
- Physical Distancing (changes to the workplace and to working conditions)
- Travel and Contact Logs
- Personal Protective Equipment
- Infectious Diseases (generally and regarding COVID-19 which sets out the process your organization will follow if an employee has a confirmed case of an infectious disease)
- Remote Work
- Work Refusal
- Requests for Accommodation
Question 2: Should your organization develop a recall plan?
Yes, it is crucial for employers to develop a recall plan, regardless of their size. A recall plan should outline the process and actions your organization will take to recall employees back into the workplace. It will also demonstrate to your employees and others that your organization is committed to using fair practices when deciding who returns to work and when. When creating a recall plan please consider the follow:
- Review your collective agreement (if it applies to your workforce) as it may include language which address recall considerations such as relevance of skills and seniority.
- Reduce the potential for employee resistance to recall by reviewing your workforce for staff such as volunteers who wish to remain on lay-off if possible.
- Decide who to recall by identifying employees with the skill set required, seniority, productivity, adaptability/versatility, or potential financial impact to business if employee is not recalled vs terminated. Be careful that your selection criteria process is fair and does not trigger any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Avoid making decisions based on attendance record, a known medical condition or risk of contracting COVID-19.
Question 3: What health and safety measures can your organization take to reduce risk?
- Encourage employees to practice proper hygiene by posting guidelines throughout the workplace.
- Increase regular cleaning and disinfecting of the office space, paying special attention to high touch areas and equipment frequently used such as door handles, printers and fax machines.
- Ensure sanitizers are easily accessible throughout the office space and if possible, equip each workstation with sanitizer.
- Encourage social distancing by staggering arrival times and start times and if possible, identify different entry points for different teams.
- Follow building protocols for elevator access and encourage use of stairs if possible.
- Increase the space between work stations by installing physical barriers and ensure employees are not sharing work stations. If customer facing, install physical barriers such as Plexiglas between employee and customers.
- If possible, encourage one-way traffic by using floor markers.
- Reduce meeting rooms and board room occupancy by using telephone or video meetings.
- Set physical distancing parameters for shared office space such as lunch rooms, meeting rooms and board rooms, supply rooms, vending machines, etc.
- Temporarily discontinue the use of common areas such as fridge, toasters, utensils and plates and replace with disposable cups, plates and utensils.
- Encourage employees to eat their lunch at their work station.
- To make it easier to contain a possible breakout, group employees into teams.
- Temporarily eliminate all non-essential travel outside of the region or the country. If travel is essential, require employees to work remotely for 14 days before returning to the office.
- Maintain a visitor’s log which indicates with whom the visitor was in contact. Employees can also keep a log of anyone in the workplace with whom they might have had close contact with – fewer than 2 meters.
- Ensure the air flow in your office/building is functioning properly to reduce any airborne exposure to illness.
Question 4: Should your organization implement screening protocols to ensure the workplace is safe?
Yes. If your office is high-contact, ask employees or visitors to complete a health screening questionnaire and temperature screening before entering the building/office space. Keep in mind that temperature screening may not be the best method to reduce risk as body temperature fluctuates throughout the day and a fever related to COVID-19 might not be detectable throughout the entire day. If your office is low-contact, post a screening notice which advises employees and visitors not to enter if they are experiencing any COVID-19 related symptoms.
Question 5: Can you require staff and visitors to wear Personal Protective Equipment?
Yes, you can ask your employees and visitors to wear masks or gloves. If possible, provide gloves and masks to employees and visitors.
Question 6: What if an employee or visitor refuses to wear a mask?
The employer should try to better understand the employees’ reason for refusal. Ask the employees questions to better understand the reason for their concerns. If the employee has a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, the employer should consider reasonable accommodation that would not create an undue hardship or pose a direct threat to other employees. An accommodation could include, reassigning the employee to a position where they would not be required to work around others or moving the employees’ desk to an area in the office away from others.
Question 7: What if an employee refuses to return to work post-COVID due to fear of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace?
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employees are within their right to refuse to work if they believe there is a threat or risk to their health and safety. If an employee has a fear of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace ask the employee to explain their reason for concern. Educate the employee on the precautions that you have taken to ensure the workplace is safe. If the employer has met its safety requirements and ensured that proper precautions are in place, but the employee still refuses to work, follow the work refusal process. Place employee in a safe area then start an investigation with the Joint Health and Safety Committee worker representative (if your organization has a designated representative). If there are risks, address them. If there are no risks ask the employee to return to work. If employee continues to refuse to return to work, contact the Ministry of Labour to investigate. If the investigator says the workplace is unsafe, the employer must make the recommended changes. If the investigation confirms that the workplace is safe and the employee still refuses to go to work, the employer will be within their right to treat the refusal as job abandonment or resignation.
Question 8: What if an employee refuses to return to work post-COVID due to fear of contracting COVID-1 9 in the public?
Educate employees on the steps (wearing a mask and gloves, practicing proper hygiene, and using different transportation options) they can take to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 while out in public. Advise employees of the expectation to return and if non-union employee, advise that a failure to return will be treated as a resignation. If the employee is unionized, warn the employee of the application of any ‘deemed termination’ provisions, if they exist, if they do not return to work from a recall.
Question 9: What if employee cannot return to work post-COVID because of Childcare needs?
In Ontario, an employee is entitled to unpaid leave of absence under the new Emergency Leave: Declared Emergencies and Infectious Disease Emergencies (“Emergency Leave”) section of the Ontario Employment Standards ACT, 2000 if the employee requires time off to provide care to a child at home due to a school or daycare closure. The ESA does not provide entitlement to remote working arrangements therefore any request for remote work is a request for accommodation and would need to be addressed under the Human rights legislation.
Question 10: What if an employee cannot return to work post-COVID due to the employee’s underlying health condition?
An employee with a health condition that puts them at increased risk for severe illness if infected with COVID-19 would have to make a request for accommodation on the basis of disability.
Question 11: What if an employee cannot return to work post-COVID due to a family member’s underlying health condition?
If the employee has a family member (who relies on the employee to provide care and support) who has been directed by public health to isolate, the employee may be entitled to Emergency Leave under the ESA. Otherwise this would be accommodation on the basis of marital status or family status.
Question 12: Can an employer request proof from an employee to verify their need for a leave of absence?
Yes, if an employee requests Emergency Leave under the ESA, the employer can request documentation such as confirmation of daycare or school closure, or notice from public health directing the employee’s family member to isolate. The employer cannot request a medical certificate.
Question 13: Can an employer force an employee to use banked vacation or forfeit vacation time?
Without an approval from the Director of Employment Standards, employers cannot ask employees to forfeit vacation time. Employers can however ask their employees to schedule their vacation time prior to returning to the office. For employees on layoff the employer has the option to recall early and place the employee on paid vacation prior to resuming their regular schedule.
Employees should be permitted to but not required to use vacation days or partial vacation days to offset loss of income if they choose to do so.
Question 14: What to do when an employee has (or may have) COVID-19?
If an employee has a suspected case of COVID-19 they should be asked to stay home and self-isolate until testing is done and results are confirmed.
If an employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19, the employee should be asked to stay home and remain in isolation until a medical practitioner has cleared them to return to work. An employee should also stay home and remain in isolation if a member of their household has COVID-19 or if they have been in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Question 15: What should be included in an infectious disease plan?
An infectious disease plan should set out the steps to follow in the event of an infectious disease outbreak. It should outline the reporting obligations of the employer (to the ministry of Labour) and employee (if the employee has a suspected or confirmed case of an infectious disease) and address the documentation required before an employee can return to work (after being diagnosed with an infectious disease).
Question 16: Do employers have the right to know an employee’s diagnosis?
Although employees are not normally required to disclose their medical diagnoses, under the current circumstances they are required to disclose if they have been diagnosed with the Coronavirus or if they have been exposed. Employers also must notify other employees without disclosing the identity of the individual to avoid any potential discrimination.
Question 17: Should employers require mandatory testing for employees before they return to work?
No, requesting universal testing before employees return to work will only overburden the health system. Screen employees before they return to the office by asking them to fill out a questionnaire. If an employee has a suspected case of COVID-19, after returning to work the employee should be asked to stay home in isolation until they have been cleared by a medical practitioner.
Canadian Government Resources
Risk mitigation tool for workplaces/businesses operating during the COVID-19 pandemic
Preventing COVID-19 in the workplace: Employers, employees and essential service workers
Cleaning and disinfecting public spaces during COVID-19
Resources to prevent COVID-19 in the workplace
Reopening Ontario after COVID-19
Posters for employers and employees
COVID-19 Guidance for Workplaces and Businesses
Better Safety in the Ontario Workplace
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