Inclined to believe better days are ahead of us, most of us couldn’t wait to see the end of 2020. While we’re still getting used to writing the new year, 2021 is already off to a rough start with the best news ahead not expected until September 2021 by which time we’re told we can expect that most Canadians will have been vaccinated.
On January 12, 2021, with public health and financial recovery still in jeopardy, the Ontario government, under the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, announced its latest emergency response measures. Here are the key developments for Ontario employers.
Declaration of Emergency
The province is now under a state of emergency. This is the province’s second emergency order taken to counter the spread of the virus. The declared emergency means that the colour-coded zone directives are now paused and replaced by greater temporary restrictions. The good news is that the details are more clear this time around and with some proactive rather than reactive measures.
The Premier made it clear that the risk without these emergency measures is that Ontario’s ICUs will be overwhelmed by the first week of February. The declaration of emergency under section 7.0.1 (1) of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act had an immediate effect. In conjunction, the province has issued a stay-at-home order requiring everyone to remain at home with limited exceptions effective Thursday, January 14, 2021, at 12:01 a.m.
Temporary Restrictions on Business Operations
The full details of the announcement can be read here. Some of the key ways in which the declared emergency and stay-at-home order will impact Ontario employers are:
- Employers must allow employees who can work from home to work from home. They are required to facilitate and support remote work arrangements and, in some circumstances, must accommodate employees with dependent care and online school responsibilities.
- Restrictions on in-person business activity for each industry must be observed, such as those imposed on all non-essential retail stores who are now required to restrict their hours of operation and remain closed overnight from 8 pm to 7 am.
- Business owners must observe the authority of all provincial offences officers to inspect and temporarily close a premise and/or disperse individuals who are in contravention of gathering limits or public health guidelines.
Expanded Workplace Inspections
Ontario employers who were lauded for their efforts by the government can expect some of the health and safety measures announced to remain beyond the state of emergency. Especially those launched under the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development’s Stay Safe All Day campaign. The campaign will expand the scope of workplace safety inspections to include high-transmission areas peripheral to the worksite. This will mean greater responsibilities for employers and employees to observe and maintain health and safety protocols in these connected areas.
A Cautionary Tale!
You may have read yesterday’s news report about Alberta employer Cargill who is facing investigation for criminal liability in the death of their employee, Benito Quesada who died from the virus. The Cargill plant where Benito worked was reported in May of 2020 to be the site of the single worst outbreak in North America. The inadequacies of health and safety measures cited allege that the company:
- Failed to provide adequate PPE.
- Failed to ensure work was done while maintaining adequate physical distance.
- Did not follow public health guidelines in employee common areas.
- Incentivized workers to report to work regardless of their transmission risk.
- Allowed company policy on reporting to work to trump public health guidelines.
Cargill is also facing a class-action suit blaming it for harm caused to the broader community by its inadequate public health measures. Whatever the outcome for the company with respect to criminal or civil liability for the spread of the virus there are important lessons for all employers.
Proactive Business Measures
We are all in a different place in 2021. Last year was about the ability to pivot. Most and the best of what you did as an employer was reactive. In 2021, if the already dismal infection trends are to be disrupted you will have to be proactive. Here are just some ideas:
- Review and revamp your employee policies as needed. You may need to implement or update your policy on remote work. You should address accommodation needs and have a plan in place for the process.
- Tap into funding lifelines for your business. In January 2021, business owners have more funding available to them whether for acquiring PPE or managing expenses. See our Guide for Employers During Covid-19 here.
- In our recent blog post on vaccination, we recommended seeking out ways to get information and education around COVID-19 immunization to employees. Read about local health experts hosting virtual town halls to do just that here. Begin your planning for an eventual return to in-person operations.
As a virtual firm, we know that employers can and should use tech to minimize the business disruptions caused by the pandemic and the necessary government measures. Reach out to us and let us know how we can assist you in navigating this second state of emergency.