TORONTO — As COVID-19 spreads around the world, Canadian companies are reviewing policies around employee travel and when to stop them coming into the workplace, in a bid to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.
The move has triggered questions around workers’ rights in these scenarios and how employees can recoup lost wages.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” employment law expert Daniel Lublin told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday.
“In the current context of what we’re experiencing with the potential outbreak, employers are within their rights to ensure that any employee who has symptoms of coronavirus, has travelled to an infected area or been in close personal contact with someone who’s been to an infected area is prevented from attending the workplace and possibly infecting the other employees. “
Some Canadian employers are already telling staff planning overseas trips to self-quarantine for weeks upon return to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Manulife Financial Corp. has told employees who have been to China, South Korea, Iran and Italy to isolate themselves for 14 days, according to The Canadian Press.
Meanwhile, Home Depot of Canada has stopped all employee travel to and from Asia and Italy until further notice and any employees who have returned from either place in the last two weeks are being told to stay home for two weeks before returning to work.
“When this becomes a problem from a legal perspective is when employers overreach and cross the line and start to stereotype or target certain employees based on race, religious background, ethnicity or place of origin,” Lublin said.
“When questions are designed to identify information from certain groups of people, that can be discriminatory.”
Lublin said in the current circumstances, employers have much more leeway to ensure the health and safety of employees.
“It would be a problem if certain individuals are targeted, sent home, asked not to attend the workplace or even forced to work remotely if they have no possible basis of infecting anybody else in the workplace,” he said.
Sick employees are not entitled to salary and lost wages from their employer, but there are mechanisms to recover some pay if unable to work, Lublin said.
“There’s employment insurance, sometimes there’s sick leave pay, disability insurance,” Lublin said.
“We saw with the SARS outbreak that health and safety workers were able to claim workplace safety and insurance compensation, so there can be some means to try to recover pay, but it doesn’t necessarily come directly from the employer.”
Meanwhile, in the U.K. self-isolating workers will get statutory sick pay from the first day off work, rather than the fourth, to help contain the coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. The emergency legislation means people will receive an extra £40, or around C$68.
Employees in Canada who don’t feel safe going into an office have a reasonable right to refuse unsafe work conditions if there’s a likelihood of infection, Lublin explained.
“If somebody is unreasonably refusing to work because of the potential of catching coronavirus when there is no basis for that, that would be unreasonable,” he said.
“But for someone on the frontlines, for example take someone in a high contact situation with a high volume of travellers, if there’s an outbreak in Canada, work refusal may very well be reasonable.”
The federal government has issued travel advisories for several countries where COVID-19 has posed an especially serious problem.
Canadians are urged to avoid all non-essential travel to China and completely avoid all travel to Hubei province, where the outbreak originated.
Canada already had significant travel advisories in place for Iran, which was the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths outside of China. The government said this week that the new coronavirus is another reason to skip non-essential trips to Iran.
As of Wednesday morning, Canada had 33 cases of the virus, 20 in Ontario, 12 in British Columbia and one in Quebec.
– With files from CTV’s Ryan Flanagan and The Canadian Press
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