The rapidly escalating nature of the global COVID-19 pandemic poses a challenge unlike many of us have experienced in our lifetime. If your Firm hasn’t realized it by now, you need to assume the effects of this virus will be on your doorsteps within a matter of days (if not hours). While it is certainly not the time to panic, it is time to take immediate steps to prepare.
So, what can Firms do? What duties do Firms have to their employees and workplaces in this situation? And what measures can be implemented to help reduce the risk of potential harm from COVID-19?
Employer Duties. As a starting point, it is critical to remember employers in BC have a duty, under occupational health and safety legislation, to ensure the health and safety of all of its workers, and any other workers present at its workplace. It is likewise important to note workers have statutory duty to take reasonable care to protect their own health and safety and the health and safety of other persons who may be affected by the worker’s acts or omissions at work.
Additionally, Firms have a duty to accommodate employees, under human rights legislation, if they have an illness or if they need to care for a family member with an illness. Firms also have an obligation, under employment standards legislation, to grant administrative/support staff (i.e. non-CPA employees) certain leaves of absence to care for family members with health issues.
Further, Firms have a statutory duty to protect employee privacy. This means that if an employee discloses they are sick or have been in contact with someone who is sick, the employer should ensure such personal information is safely kept and disclosed only when legally permissible, which could include sharing information necessary to keep employees safe.
Practical Tips. With all of these duties in mind, Firms should consider the following practical actions:
- Appoint a committee of management or key employees to stay up to date on the latest alerts and recommendations from public health authorities and WorkSafe BC, and to immediately implement orders or recommendations:
- Implement and/or update all relevant policies, including leaves of absence, absenteeism, time-off, health & safety, and remote work policies.
- Review work practices and administrative controls by asking:
- Do we have a formal or informal health and safety program in place, as mandated by WorkSafe BC, and are we following it?
- Is the virus already/likely present in our workplace or close community?
- Are workers travelling to/from affected areas of the world for either work or personal- related reasons?
- Are proper personal hygiene procedures being followed in the workplace (i.e. frequent handwashing, use of sanitizers, avoiding handshakes)?
- Are workplaces and work surfaces being disinfected frequently?
- Can personal contact among workers, visitors and clients be minimized?
- Can alternative remote meeting and working options be implemented to contribute to social distancing?
- Advise employees of the symptoms associated with COVID-19 (i.e. cough, sneezing, fever, sore throat or difficulty breathing), and advise anyone with even mild symptoms to stay home and seek medical advice as soon as possible. If anyone starts to exhibits such symptoms in the workplace, send them home immediately to seek medical attention. This advice also applies to asymptomatic employees who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
- Advise employees about up to date travel guidelines from public health authorities. Ensure employees who have recently travelled to any “affected areas” stay home and advise them to follow the recommendations/requirements of public health authorities regarding self-isolation and symptom-monitoring.
- Encourage employees to work remotely to promote social distancing, particularly in the event of any recent travel or if the local public health risk increases.
- Ensure employees who are otherwise still capable of working avoid financial harm, as much as possible, in the event they are required to stay home. Consider remote work, paid leave, extended sick days, use of vacation time, or temporary layoffs with severance/termination pay. Firms should also monitor announcements from the Federal Government/Service Canada regarding expanded Employment Insurance entitlements and benefits.
- Ensure personal information is protected and only used/disclosed in a way that complies with privacy legislation and/or as directed by public health authorities.
This continues to be a challenging and rapidly developing situation. It is critical for employers to be prepared, pro-active, and level-headed in the days and weeks ahead. Doing so will not only help employers fulfill their legal duties to their workers, but will also help them fulfill their role as good neighbours and conscientious members of their respective communities.
If you have a current or suspected health and safety situation, you should immediately contact the relevant public health agency in your area or WorkSafe BC for guidance.
Mandatory Remote Work Policy for CPA Firms
Clearline Consulting has created a sample Mandatory Remote Work Policy that can be included as part of your Firm’s employee policy handbook. Included in this document is a policy for infectious disease prevention and management as well as employee compensation during mandatory remote work periods. Get your copy of the Mandatory Remote Work Policy here.
NOTE: The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. If you have specific questions about your employment policies or practices you can contact Yeager Employment Law for a consultation.