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COVID-19 Workplace Update, March 31 2020

The following is meant to provide general direction to employers dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 in the workplace. This is a rapidly evolving situation, so this information is subject to change. If you have specific questions or issues, please reach out directly or contact your public health office.

Public Health and Travel Information:

For regular updates on public health information on COVID-19, please monitor the following government websites:

The Government of Canada’s Public Health Agency:

Prevention and Control Canada (ipac)

Government and Public Health Ontario:

Government of Canada Travel Health Notices:

Coronavirus in the Workplace:

On March 17, 2020, the Government of Ontario announced an order declaring a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and ultimately ordered the immediate and indefinite closure of non-essential services.

A list of essential services which can currently continue operations can be found at the link below:

The following are suggestions for employers based on current information from  government and public health resources and legislation:

  • Employers should prohibit non-essential travel at this time, inside or outside of Canada.
  • Persons returning to Canada from travel outside of the country must self-isolate on their return for 14 days.
  • Employees who are ill should not be permitted into the workplace, even those with unrelated or mild symptoms.  They should be advised to contact a local public health authority for advice on what they should do and whether they should be tested. They should not be allowed to return to the workplace for at least 14 days, or until a diagnosis of COVID-19 is ruled out by health authorities.
  • Employees who have been in contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19 should be removed from the workplace and advised to self-isolate for 14 days.  Similarly, co-workers who were in close contact with the employee should also be removed from the workplace and advised to self-isolate for 14 days.
  • If an employee tests positive for COVID-19 they should not be permitted to return to the workplace until it is medically confirmed that they are free of the virus
    • Public health authorities suggest that anyone who worked closely with an infected employee should also be removed from the workplace for at least 14 days
    • The identity of employees who are ill or are confirmed case(s) should be protected to the extent possible
    • If the infection originated from exposure in the workplace or in the course of employment, the employer may be required to notify WSIB .  It remains to be seen whether COVID-19 will be considered an “occupational disease” such that worker’s compensation benefits might be available.
    • The employer may be required to contact public health authorities for direction on identifying and reporting contact the infected person had with co-workers
  • Employees who are required to miss work in relation to COVID-19 should be allowed to take any applicable legislated leave, or be allowed to use sick or vacation time in accordance with company policy.  Whether or not an employer is required to pay an employee who misses work related to COVID-19 depends on the circumstances.
  • Work Refusals might arise if employees fear exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace or in the course of employment.  An employer must respond to work refusals in accordance with occupational health and safety legislation.  Whether an investigation and/or new health and safety measures are required will depend on the circumstances of each refusal.  The law prohibits any reprisal against an employee who exercises health and safety rights in accordance with the legislation.
  • Preventative measures currently being advised are hand and environmental hygiene, and social (physical) distancing. Employers should contact public health to confirm whether other measures or protective equipment is recommended for their specific workplace.
  • Permit and facilitate employees to work remotely, where possible

*Employers should continue to monitor and follow public health advice, and err on the side of caution

Workplace Closures and Reductions:

An employer has an obligation under health and safety legislation to ensure a safe and healthy working environment.  It may be necessary to close/reduce a workplace for health and safety reasons, or for other pandemic-related business reasons.  An employer can lay off employees temporarily, but there is a risk that this may be treated as a deemed termination of employment under applicable employment standards legislation, or constructive dismissal under the common law.  This risk may be less where the employer is ordered to close by public health or government authorities.  An employer can ask employees to participate in a voluntary layoff or reduction in hours/compensation.

The risks an employer faces with closures and layoffs depends on the specific circumstances of each case, as well as any language included in existing employment contracts.  Employers are encouraged to maintain transparent communication with employees to maintain a relationship of trust, and continue employee benefits if possible.

Employers should review eligibility and consider the new wage subsidy and other government program(s) to minimize layoffs and wage loss.  See below.

Government Programs and Wage Replacement Benefits:

The Federal Government has announced new and expanded measures and programs to assist employees and employers manage the economic impact of COVID-19.  This includes but is not limited to the following:

Employees who miss work or lose wages due to illness, quarantine, self-isolation, layoff or work reductions may be eligible for various government benefits and leaves

  • Expansion of voluntary unpaid leaves
  • Improved access to regular EI Benefits
  • Improved access to EI Sickness Benefits
  • The Canada Emergency Response Benefit
  • An increase in the Canada Child Benefit
  • Mortgage support
  • Reduced minimum withdrawals for Registered Retirement Income Funds

Employers who are impacted by COVID-19 can benefit from the following new and expanded government programs which may help employers to avoid closures and workforce reductions:

  • Work Sharing program (extended)
  • Ontario’s Supplemental Unemployment Benefit Program
  • Wage subsidies up to 75% of an employee’s earnings
  • Access to credit through the Business Credit Availability Program
  • More time to pay income taxes, and deferral of sales tax remittance and customs duty payments

A full list and description of government benefits and programs can be found, and will be updated as they change and develop, at the links below:

This is a rapidly changing situation.  Please continue to monitor applicable government and public health websites If you have specific questions about workplace issues related to COVID-19 please feel free to contact our Labour and Employment law team.