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How to protect workers from domestic violence during a pandemic

Employers have specific obligations to remote workers


April 23, 2020
By Kristina Vassilieva/Peninsula Canada

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(Rawf8/Adobe Stock)

One unfortunate consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is a global increase in reports of domestic violence.

This increase may be linked to stress and more frequent family interactions due to more time spent at home.

With many employees now working from home, employers must be wary of the risks remote working poses and of their obligations to employees under the law.

In Canada, occupational health and safety legislation applies to remote workplaces in the same way it applies to an employer’s traditional workplace — such as an office or factory.

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Employers still have certain health and safety obligations to employees even if they are working from their own homes.

Employers are expected to take steps to ensure employees are safe in their home working environment, the same way they would in their regular workplace, says Tracey Harvie, a health and safety expert at Peninsula Canada, a human resources consultancy in Toronto.

This involves taking preventative measures and implementing procedures if employers suspect or are informed that an employee is experiencing domestic violence.

Obligations for employers

Concerning employer obligations and domestic violence in the workplace, some provinces are more specific than others, says Harvie.

“Different jurisdictions have different requirements; however, employers are generally required to take all reasonable precautions to protect their workers from illness and injury.”

Some provinces and territories require employers to have workplace violence and harassment policies and programs, and these can extend to cover domestic violence in the workplace, she says.

“For example, Ontario’s legislation does consider that domestic violence might spill into the workplace. This means that when considering their employees’ safety when working from home, they must also consider whether they are safe from domestic violence,” says Harvie.

Safeguarding against violence

Employers should have a workplace violence prevention policy and program that addresses domestic violence in the workplace, she says. In some provinces, this is a legal requirement.

The policy and program should include instructions for how employees can confidentially report domestic violence in the workplace, how employers will respond to incidents, domestic violence resources and a workplace safety plan, among other elements.

While anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, in Canada, victims are overwhelmingly women.

“Virtual team meetings and individual meetings are a good way to establish welfare checks with employees who are working remotely,” says Harvie. “It may be necessary to establish a higher-than-average frequency of such checks with your employee if you are aware or suspect they may be in a volatile domestic situation.”

Protecting employees

All provinces allow eligible employees to take job-protected leave for reasons related to domestic or sexual violence.

To ensure employees are able to take this time off, employers may go beyond their minimum provincial standards and provide pay for the duration of the leave or a portion of it if this is not already a requirement. The details of domestic or sexual violence leave, such as duration and eligibility criteria, vary by province.

Employers may also extend employees’ leave of absence if this is necessary and offer workplace relocation options where possible.

“Employers should be ready to respond to workers’ concerns on a case-by-case basis, as every situation calls for a unique approach,” says Harvie. “Remote workers should be encouraged to voice their concerns to management and systems should be in place for reporting incidents and summoning immediate assistance.”

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $40-million government contribution towards Women and Gender Equality Canada, part of which will go to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres around the country.

Kristina Vassilieva is an HR writer for Peninsula Canada in Toronto.