/Coronavirus conundrum: Two of my employees just returned from China. Can I ask them to stay home?

Coronavirus conundrum: Two of my employees just returned from China. Can I ask them to stay home?

What should Canadian employers do to ensure that the coronavirus does not spread through their workplaces?

A client asked yesterday whether it could prevent two employees, who had just returned from China, from attending its workplace. My office has since received many such calls.

So here is the advice I am providing employer clients:

There are various strategies to put in place to prevent the coronavirus from potentially infecting your workforce.

The first is to publish notices about the virus symptoms conspicuously in the workplace and email them to employees, requiring that anyone experiencing those symptoms should leave the premises immediately and either go home and see if the symptoms quickly clear or seek medical assistance.

Similarly, employees must be told not to enter the workplace if they are suffering the symptoms. If an employee is infected, they should not be permitted to return without medical clearance.

I appreciate the irony of employees, who are not infected, attending doctors’ offices and catching the virus in the waiting room.

If the company posts such a notice and an employee, faced with those symptoms, decides to remain at work and fails to disclose their condition, not only could that be cause for their dismissal, but it could create personal liability on the employee’s part for any contagion that they caused, even ultimately indirectly to many others.

The office Occupational Health and Safety Committee should meet and discuss protocols for the workplace, including the matters I am delineating, and set up communications with public health officials to remain abreast of current conditions in the city the company operates in and evolve their strategy for dealing with the virus. They should also be tasked with preventing customers exhibiting symptoms from entering the workplace.

In addition to the posted notice, companies should have hand sanitizers throughout the workplace while the epidemic remains a risk and supply masks, gloves and eye protection for those employees who wish to use them. Forcing unaffected employees to wear such devices, until there have been far more Canadian cases reported, would be overly intrusive. The obligation to wear protective equipment could change if the statistics do.

Employers should supply face masks for those who wish to use them.

Employers should supply face masks for those who wish to use them.

Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

Air-cleaning devices, such as portable HEPA filtration units, may be used to further reduce the concentration of contaminants in the air and such usage should be increased during this period. Ensure that bathrooms are kept clean, that employees are reminded to wash their hands thoroughly and that individual paper towels are in sufficient supply and placed for disposal outside of the washroom door (as well as inside) so that employees need not touch the bathroom door handles. If there is a company cafeteria, remind employees that they are not to share food or utensils and ensure that sufficient utensils are always available.

Ensure that workplace cleaners, whether employed or contracted, are trained in cleaning techniques and supplied with utility gloves and adequate cleaning materials.

Companies can also ask employees not to travel if it would take them through international airports.

If employees are returning from affected areas, such as in the case of my client, companies can ask the employee to stay at home for the length of the virus’s incubation period, which I understand from the Centre for Disease Control to be as much as 14 days, and only to return to work after that period has passed, assuming that they are symptom-free.

However, they would not be covered by an employer’s disability benefit policies and, to enforce this without legal recourse, that absence would have to be paid. It therefore makes sense to have such employees perform work from their homes if such work is available. If matters become more serious in the city that companies are located in, seek to reduce meetings and other occasions where employees would have to interact with others.

Employee communication is essential in the case of a coronavirus outbreak or other general emergency. Companies should keep their workforce constantly updated by email with office protocol as it develops. This is an emerging new virus and, as evidence develops, this advice will have to be fine-tuned accordingly. Even the incubation period may ultimately be proved to exceed the 14 days so it is important to stay abreast of developments.

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt LLP, employment and labour lawyers. He practises employment law in eight provinces. The most recent of his six books is Law of Dismissal in Canada.

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