The Wuhan Novel Coronavirus (or 2019-vCoV) is a public health emergency in Canada with confirmed cases in Ontario. This has led many employers to ask how they should manage their employees’ concerns, while still trying to operate “business as usual”.  On the one hand, employers are obligated to provide a healthy and safe work environment, while on the other, they must respect an employee’s privacy and ensure that their responses to any health or safety concerns do not violate human rights legislation.

Stay Well Informed

Because an employer’s legal obligations continue during a public health emergency, clear and accurate information and communication are vital. Employers should remain informed of the latest public health information and communicate essential information and specific expectations to their employees. For example, relaying the importance of handwashing and hand sanitizing, while maintaining well-stocked supplies for doing so. 

Depending on employee circumstances, employers may need to implement more specific precautionary measures to protect the workforce. Such measures should be reviewed and updated as official sources of information change. Because of the uncertainty around the Coronavirus, a cautious and conservative approach will be defensible by employers, so long as they act reasonably, and base their decisions on official sources of information. 

The following websites should be used as official sources for up-to-date information:

World Health Organization

Public Health Agency of Canada

Public Health Ontario

Toronto Public Health

Collaborate With Employees

Given that, in some cases, the Coronavirus has led to a spotlight on individuals’ personal health status, and the stigmatizing of the Chinese community, employers should approach the issue with discretion and sensitivity. Employers should also designate an appropriate person within their organization to field employee questions and concerns. 

While ultimately the employer will decide what precautionary measures are required and appropriate, a two-way conversation with an employee about appropriate precautionary measures is advisable whenever possible. For example, if an employee has travelled to an affected area, discuss collaboratively what a productive period of remote work could look like, and how such a modified work arrangement might be communicated to co-workers. Based on recent official sources, symptoms of the virus may present themselves up to 14 days after exposure, therefore it is reasonable that an impacted employee be asked to work remotely for 14 days. In some cases, the employee should be required to produce medical documentation confirming their clearance to return to the workplace. 

Employers may benefit from a strategic discussion with employment law counsel to develop precautionary measures or incident responses that are compliant with health and safety, privacy, and human rights legislation. If this is the case for your workplace, please get in touch.