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With health experts proclaiming that the Wuhan Novel Coronavirus (i.e., the “Coronavirus”) is likely to become 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. With that in mind, below are general answers to some of the questions our clients are asking.

Do we have to keep paying quarantined/isolated employees?

The answer is likely no, but may depend on the specific circumstances and terms and conditions of the worker’s employment. There is no general presumption that employees are entitled to be paid wages during periods of inactive employment, including, for example, during a quarantine period.

Some short-term disability (“STD”) plans may provide benefits during an employee’s quarantine period. As such, if your organization offers STD, it may be worthwhile to review terms of eligibility now to determine if you should refer any quarantined employees to the insurer.

Can employees claim WSIB benefits for Coronavirus?

The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (“WSIB”) has not yet announced its approach to Coronavirus one way or another. However, during SARS, the WSIB did provide benefits to workers who were exposed to SARS at work and developed symptoms. That said, benefits were not payable if an employee was symptom free, even if quarantined or isolated on a precautionary basis.

The SARS precedent suggests that the WSIB will likely provide workers’ compensation benefits to employees who show symptoms of Coronavirus as a result of some work-related exposure.

If the WSIB ultimately decides to cover Coronavirus, employees will likely be able to claim WSIB benefits if symptoms follow exposure during any work-related travel. Among other things, the WSIB Operational Policy Manual provides that entitlement to WSIB benefits extends to persons traveling 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, we suspect that the employee could likely claim WSIB benefits. However, as noted above, the WSIB has not yet ruled on its Coronavirus coverage.

An employee is returning from travel in China and other employees refuse to work with him/her. What can we do?

Employers should ensure ongoing compliance with their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination obligations. Some commentators have noted that Coronavirus fears are leading to anti-China sentiment, which could potentially fuel workplace discrimination and/or harassment on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin contrary to the Human Rights Code. Employers should monitor employee behaviour and take steps to prevent any illegal workplace harassment or discrimination.

Employees are not generally entitled to refuse to work with or near specific individuals, and an employee who does so without lawful basis may be subject to appropriate disciplinary action. That said, employees are entitled to refuse unsafe work under the Occupational Health and Safety Act – so employees may be entitled to refuse to work in proximity to a co-worker exhibiting actual Coronavirus symptoms.

How can we help stop the spread of Coronavirus?

  • Remind employees of their entitlement to sick days under the Employment Standards Act, 2000 or your organization’s policies and encourage employees to stay home if they exhibit any Coronavirus symptoms.
  • Cancel any non-essential work-related travel to cities exhibiting high rates of incidence. The World Health Organization is publishing helpful “Situation Reports” on a daily basis providing an overview of global incidence of Coronavirus: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports/
  • Send employees exhibiting Coronavirus symptoms home. Not only will this help stop the spread the Coronavirus, but it may be legally required under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which requires employers to take “every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker”.  

Of course, if your organization has specific employment-related concerns involving Coronavirus, you should reach out to your legal counsel for advice. Contact information for Siskinds LLP’s Labour and Employment Group is available here.

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