CBC London asked Siskinds LLP labour and employment lawyer Elizabeth Traynor what employers can do to help protect their employees from the coronavirus at work and if they should send sick employees home.
Workplaces across the city are wrestling with what to do amid a possible coronavirus outbreak
As fears of a possible coronavirus pandemic mount across the globe, many London workplaces are scrambling to draft contingency plans in order to prevent or limit their employees from being exposed to the illness in the event of a widespread outbreak.
Health authorities stress that the risk of contracting the illness locally remains low, even as provincial health authorities in Ontario raised the number of cases in the province to 20 on Tuesday with few specific details available on the newest reports of the illness.
Under the law, employers must do everything they can in order to protect the health and safety of their employees in the workplace and that includes protecting them from getting sick in the event a coronavirus outbreak is declared.
Exactly how the possible outbreak would affect individual workers and businesses depends on a number of factors, according to Elizabeth Traynor, a management-side labour lawyer with the London law firm Siskinds.
Nobody wants an infected person to show up at work
She said while some workplaces can have staff work from home, others, such as retail operations where employees need to be physically present should proactively provide workers with safety equipment, such as masks and gloves, or training in order to prevent infection.
“Where it gets to be quite complex is where you know or believe that an employee, or more than one employee, has actually been infected,” she said.
Nobody wants someone affected by the virus to show up at work, but that might happen anyway, especially if the worker is paid hourly, isn’t covered by sick leave or doesn’t have severe symptoms.
Traynor said while it’s easy to say there should be an incentive for workers to stay home, most employers can’t afford to be generous when it comes to sick leave.
No obligation to pay employees for no work
“Money is not growing on trees out there, so for many companies it would not be financially feasible to open those flood gates and tell everybody that you would pay for sick days that aren’t already available through a collective agreement or policies.”
“Time off work, if it’s going to be unpaid can be a very serious blow to individuals and families. So I think employers should be prepared for the possibility of having employees stay off work and then having the employees suffer those financial consequences,” she said.
“There is no actual obligation on employers to pay employees when work is not being performed.”
While workers should be prepared for a potential disruption to their daily routine and the possibility of a temporary layoff or furlough, health authorities are also urging employers to be more liberal when it comes to allowing employees to stay home when they’re sick.
Bosses asking for doctors notes ‘don’t help’
“One of the ways you can do that is to avoid asking for those sick notes,” said Dr. Alex Summers, the associate medical officer of health for the London Middlesex Health Unit.
“Those sick notes are just a piece of paper that actually don’t help in these type of circumstances and things like that can help limit the amount a workplace can be affected by a respiratory virus.”
Aside from people who are showing symptoms of cough, cold, or fever, Summers said employers should not exclude any employees or visitors from their workplaces unless otherwise directed by health authorities.
“The only exception of a-symptomatic people being excluded from workplaces would be those returning from Iran or Hubei province in China and those folks have been advised to contact public health,” he said.
Chamber of Commerce releases pandemic toolkit
Until doctors declare an outbreak, employers must do their best to prepare for the eventuality one might occur. In order to help London businesses do that, on Tuesday the London Chamber of Commerce released a pandemic tool kit to members.
The tool kit for local businesses includes checklists to ensure preparedness, how to revise employee sick leave and absence policies and what training and safety measures should be undertaken at the office.
Much of it based on what was contained in earlier pandemics, such as the 2003 SARS and 2007 Avian Flu pandemics, according to chamber CEO Gerry McCartney.
“It’s quite a comprehensive plan,” he said. “It includes all the preventative stuff and what to do about your insurance and supply chain, the whole nine yards.”
“We’re not trying to panic our members,” McCartney said. “You don’t have to do it, but it would be wise to look at it and take whatever precautions are necessary so that if it does happen, you’re at least ahead of the curve.”
“Better safe than sorry.”