Health & Safety
Protecting your workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic
By Andrea Wynter
On March 12, the coronavirus (COVID-19) was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and, within a week, the government of Canada closed its borders and declared a national state of emergency. As a result, businesses across the world, already facing numerous challenges, now faced increased pressure to respond aggressively to this ongoing threat.
While every organization’s structure differs, and a one-size-fits-all model is impractical, it’s crucial for employers to be able to effectively address concerns, communicate policies and instill confidence in the measures taken to protect their workforce.
Employers should consider the following key HR and business considerations to maintain a safe and secure workplace, ensure business continuity and comply with applicable laws and regulations.
Maintain a safe workplace
During a pandemic, maintaining a safe environment is essential for employee wellbeing. Certain workplace practices can help protect the safety and security of employees. The first step in this process is to educate your workforce. Misinformation about the disease will continue to spread. It is important to remind employees of the facts from reputable public health agencies, such as the World Health Organization, Health Canada, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Employers must also:
- Create a communications plan with a dedicated owner (or cross-functional team) to stay on top of the latest developments
- Manage a regular communication process
- Address employee concerns in a timely manner
Should policies or information from public health agencies evolve, employers need to advise staff of these changes as they arise. In challenging times, the best practice is to over-communicate.
Employers can also consider establishing a manageable channel of communication for employees to submit questions related to prevention and preparedness measures. Your ability to respond promptly will be important so ensure your channel is well-monitored and appropriately manned.
A prompt and measured response to each employee concern is an opportunity to build trust and confidence.
While many organizations are moving to remote work to stop the spread of the virus, employees that are fulfilling essential needs may still be required to come to work. In these cases, it’s critical for organizations to maintain a safe environment for employees, by providing enacting rotating work forces, routine cleanings, limiting face-to-face meetings and interactions, or limiting hours of operation.
Ensure business continuity
It’s important to have a fluid business continuity plan that can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Identifying key organization positions and functions is a key step in maintaining business continuity throughout the COVID-19 lifecycle. Employers may consider training additional employees so that essential business operations can continue in the event of significant absences.
In addition to encouraging social distancing and providing the option to work remotely, employers should reschedule company events and conferences or convert them into a virtual format.
All employers need to consider relevant laws and regulations before implementing changes to the terms and conditions of employment. Employees will likely have questions about attendance, sick-leave, vacation cancellations, working remotely, pay and insurance coverage. HR teams should review workplace policies and be prepared to address these topics.
HR teams will also need stay up to speed on the latest policies – including the new Employment Insurance sickness benefits – as well as detailed information from their benefits provider regarding short-term and long-term disability.
Be mindful to treat all employees consistently to avoid discrimination claims and remember that employers must protect employees’ privacy rights at all times.
For example, if an employee discloses to HR that they have contracted COVID-19, that employer cannot disclose the name of the affected employee to staff without the employee’s permission.
The employer may disclose that an unidentified staff member has contracted the virus and can take the necessary steps to ensure employees who were in contact with affected employee are informed and able to self-quarantine.
Regardless of the pandemic situation, smart wellness policies remain in place. If an employee is ill, employers should encourage them to stay home. Employees that exhibit symptoms or who have had contact with someone with COVID-19 should follow the required quarantine period provided by public health agencies (currently, two weeks as per the Public Health Agency of Canada).
Employees should also be reminded of the organization’s paid or unpaid leave program. Be clear on notice requirements for absences and enforce rules consistently. With many doctors’ offices seeing an unprecedented number of patients, workplaces can also consider re-thinking policies regarding the requirements for doctors’ notes for employee absences. At a minimum, your workplace policies must be consistent with current public health recommendations and existing federal, provincial, and municipal laws.
Working from home is not only the best option to limit contact but is also recommended by all levels of government. Employers should set reasonable expectations regarding work schedules, response times and output for employees working remotely. To uphold privacy and security measures, ensure employees can access private internet networks and are aware of security protocols.
Management should also research and adopt collaboration tools and technology to further support team communication and workflow.
Health and safety
Employees have a duty to inform employers of any circumstance that, in a workplace, poses a risk to their personal health or safety or that of co-workers or other people with whom the employer allows access.
Employees also have the right to refuse to work if they feel they are in danger.
Under current legislation, a worker has a right to refuse to perform work that would expose them or another person to danger to their health, safety or physical well-being. To take advantage of this, the employee must present reasonable grounds to believe that their health is endangered.
Understanding and following the laws that apply to your business is the best way to navigate the uncertainty in the months ahead. Misinformation, fear and panic are likely going to continue to spread so it’s important for employers to make decisions based on objective information provided by trusted, reputable sources.
To ensure the accurate dissemination of information, employers must first ensure all operating policies are up-to-date and widely available to employees to guarantee effective communication and awareness across the organization.
By remaining nimble and flexible, evaluating and updating policies, practices, compliance and business risks and putting detailed plans in place, organizations can protect their business as well as the safety and security of their workforce.
Andrea Wynter is the head of people at ADP Canada.
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