As the weather gets colder and Canadians start to move indoors, an increase in COVID-19 case numbers – maybe even a second wave – is likely. Whether or not there will be further shutdowns, there is little doubt that the cold and flu season is on its way. As many of those symptoms are similar to those of COVID-19, your business will need to be ready for increased absences.
This need to self-isolate will impact not just the individual workers, but their families as well. Many parents may be keeping their children home from school to both avoid spreading the virus and to keep children who have symptoms from potentially bringing COVID-19 to their school or childcare. So, given these concerns, what can organizations do to prepare?
- Safety first
Under occupational health and safety legislation, employers have an obligation to take all reasonable precautions to ensure their workplace is safe. As well, many organizations should be mindful of potential legal obligations to the public at large. As such, if you have not done so already, your organization should review its policies and how they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In particular, make sure that everyone in your workplace is made aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and what they should do if they exhibit them. What is your policy on sick leave? What about remote work? Employees should know what is expected of them should they wake up with a runny nose or start to feel ill while working.
- Don’t forget what you’ve learned so far
Many lessons learned in the early stages of the pandemic will be helpful in navigating the coming months.
Some businesses may have the mindset of getting everyone back in the physical workspace as quickly as possible. Although this may be the long-term goal, we may still be a while yet from reaching it.
If your business has been able to adapt to employees working remotely, it is advisable to keep this option open. There will inevitably be some employees who are able to work but cannot come into the office for health reasons, but there will also be those that must stay home to take care of dependants, even just temporarily; a flexible approach to remote work is a key tool that employers will need to get through the coming months. Keeping it as an option can help protect those in your workplace from the virus while providing a way to maintain productivity during the absence.
- Be ready for those who might take advantage
There may be some that see that runny nose as a ticket to a day off, even if they might be capable of working remotely. This will be difficult to police, and employers should be mindful of employees’ privacy rights as well as potential human rights concerns related to undisclosed illnesses.
Even with this in mind, employers can monitor patterns in absences and have their policies address culpable absenteeism and the related consequences.
- Be flexible
Although putting policies in place or cementing existing ones may sound to some like the employer “laying down the law,” it cannot be overstated how important it is to be flexible in such policies.
With the pandemic impacting every aspect of our society, there will inevitably be employee absences due to family responsibilities. Employers should also not lose sight of the fact that, in many jurisdictions, they not only must provide time off to workers to care for dependants; they also have an obligation under human rights legislation to make accommodations for family status rights just shy of the standard of “undue hardship” to the employer.
As such, there will be the need for some flexibility in the rules. Employers will need to be ready for such things as remote work and different start and end times, and they will also need to be ready to be as flexible as possible on scheduling, not only to meet legal obligations but also to adapt to increased absences.
- Layoffs may be needed
Even with a comprehensive policy in place, there may still be shutdowns and layoffs ahead of us yet. Employers should be mindful of their legal obligations and carefully review the statutory requirements in their jurisdiction, seeking legal advice where necessary.
It is also important to be aware that layoffs are a creature of statute, but even if the layoff meets statutory requirements, an employer may have contractual and/or common law notice obligations to the employees they lay off.
Moreover, even if the layoff is only intended to be temporary, an employee could challenge it, saying that it amounts to a constructive dismissal. Before you move ahead, make sure to review any employment agreements you have and get some legal advice about what the risks and potential liabilities may be.
- Communication is key
As with the policy and preparatory points above, communication is key. Handled well, it may help to mitigate against potential claims.
- Make sure to communicate any changes in policy to your employees, giving them an opportunity to ask questions.
- Have your employees sign off to affirm that they have received and understand the policy.
- Even without policy changes, remember how important it is to communicate with your employees. For example, if you intend for a layoff to be temporary, be sure to clearly communicate this to the employee and, where possible, keep laid-off employees up to date on the situation.
And do not forget that you have obligations of good faith to your employees. Clearly-documented communication can help mitigate allegations by laid-off employees of employers not living up to their good faith obligations.
As the saying goes: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We may not be able to stop what is coming, but there are steps your organization can take to get ready. And as we have seen, the more you can include your workers in the process as you carry out those steps, the more prepared the entire organization will be to adapt to what potentially lies ahead.
The information provided on this page is intended to provide general information. The information does not take into account your personal situation and is not intended to be used without consultation from accounting and financial professionals. Allan Madan and Madan Chartered Accountant will not be held liable for any problems that arise from the usage of the information provided on this page.