COVID-19: What Employers need to know

COVID-19 Support - March 4, 20 - Sajitha Nair

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has assessed the public health risk associated with COVID-19 as low for Canada. While the spread of the coronavirus in Canada is far from a pandemic, it is important for employers to consider their policies, benefit plans, employment contracts, collective agreements and applicable legislation to ensure that they are aware of the potential legal consequences if a pandemic does arise. 

Symptoms and Transmission 

Symptoms of the coronavirus range from common to severe respiratory illnesses and include: 

  • Fever 
  • Cough 
  • Difficulty breathing and 
  • Pneumonia, kidney failure and death in severe cases 


There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19. The challenge of containing the spread of COVID-19 requires close coordination and constant communication with employees. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. Prevention measures include: 

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands 
  • Stay home when you are ill 
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then immediately throw the tissue in the garbage and wash your hands 
  • If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your sleeve or arm 
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces 
  • Do not share cups, glasses, dishes or cutlery 

 Recommendation regarding Interviews

  • As a precautionary measureemployers may choose to change their default process for hiring candidates from face-to-face onsite interviews to virtual interviews.  

Communication and Signage 

Employers should have constant and proactive communication with employees and educate them to closely observe their own physical conditions and in the event they display any flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, muscle aches, etc.) to seek immediate medical attention and notify management. 

You should also post appropriate signage about the infection prevention, including in relation to hygiene across the dealership for employee and Customer reference. This means employers must be proactive and promote respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene as the most effective ways to prevent illness spreading.   

For example, providing tissues, sanitizers and no-touch disposal receptacles for customers and employees or providing soap, water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace can ensure proper etiquette is maintained.  

What Employers Need to Know Right Now 

Leaves of Absence  

Map out an understanding of your plan to deal with this emerging issue. Some recurring areas that you may need to deal with at this time include: 

Sick Leave Benefits 

Employees unable to work because of illness caused by the Coronavirus may be eligible to claim benefits under an applicable sick leave policy. These individuals should be treated like any other sick employee, and the eligibility and procedural requirements of the policy should be applied in the same manner to these claims. 

Employers may also consider letting employees use their vacation time to cover absences or make up the time at a later date. Further, where employees are under quarantine or are still contagious but able to work, they could be permitted to work from home, where operationally feasible. 

If a full pandemic were to unfortunately unfold, employers should keep in mind that any policies dealing with employee absenteeism (including a sick leave policy) need to be sufficiently flexible to reflect the realities of the pandemic and should not be punitive in any way. For example, requiring a medical note when employees are sick with flu-like symptoms during a pandemic may be onerous when healthcare providers and medical facilities are extremely busy and overburdened.  

Family Responsibility Leave  

Employees may also be entitled to use family responsibility leave days for absences relating to a pandemic situation. Once an employee has worked for an employer for at least two consecutive weeks, the employee has the right to take up to three days of unpaid leave each calendar year because of an illness, injury, medical emergency or urgent matter relating to their: 

  • Spouse (includes both married and unmarried couples, of the same or opposite genders) 
  • Parent, stepparent, child, stepchild, foster child, grandparent, step-grandparent, grandchild or step-grandchild of the employee or the employee’s spouse  
  • Spouse of the employee’s child 
  • Brother or sister of the employee, or 
  • Relative of the employee who is dependent on the employee for care or assistance 

Employee Rights 

Employment Insurance Benefits 

In the absence of company paid sick benefit coverage or where benefits are exhausted, employees may be entitled to sickness benefits under the Employment Insurance Act (Act). Under the Act, employees who face a reduction in “normal weekly earnings” of at least 40% because of illness, injury or quarantine are eligible for EI sickness benefits, provided they have accumulated sufficient insurable hours.  

Now may be a good time to remind your employees of your company’s sick leave policy, including clarification of which circumstances and symptoms will require an employee to stay home from work. You may wish to consider a policy for extended leave (paid or unpaid) or accommodation for any employees who are affected by the coronavirus. 

Work Refusals 

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), most employees have the right to refuse work if a condition of the workplace “is likely to endanger” their health or safety. Employees encountering the Coronavirus in the workplace (or who fear that they may encounter it) may seek to exercise their right to refuse work in this regard. 

The provision, however, focuses more on the physical conditions of the workplace and currently offers little detail about how to handle the threat of communicable disease. If an employee raises concerns about coming to work, it’s still best to consult a lawyer.  

Human Rights Issues 

The Human Rights Code (Code) provides that everyone has a right to equal treatment in employment. The Human Rights Tribunal has generally held that a cold or the ordinary flu is not considered to be a disability for the purposes of the Code.  

However, if a pandemic occurs, being infected with the Coronavirus may amount to a disability under the Code. Employers must therefore keep in mind human rights considerations in their responses and contingency plans. For example, human rights considerations may arise where an employer requires an employee who recently visited high risk areas to remain off work. 


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