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COVID-19 and the workplace: What employers and employees need to do

Both parties have a part to play to ensure a safe work environment for all

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Young businesswoman in bathroom, washing handsStepping up good hygiene practices—including washing hands frequently, covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and so on—is important to keep the work environment safe for everyone (Getty Images/Peter Cade)

The fight to keep businesses up and running is evolving as quickly as the spread of COVID-19. The disruption to many workplaces is profound, particularly in sectors that require constant contact with the public (e.g. health care, grocery store workers and so on). The challenge is only increasing as new organizational or government mandates for self-isolation and travel activities come into play.   

There are myriad questions that employers have to consider in this new reality, from sick-pay policies to self-quarantining guidelines, says Stuart Ducoffe, founder of e2r®, human relations and labour law specialists in Toronto.

On March 18, the Prime Minster unveiled the federal Economic Response Plan, which includes income support for Canadians and financial relief for businesses affected by the global pandemic. “The government’s latest package must be viewed in conjunction with other announcements over recent days,” says Joy Thomas, president and CEO of CPA Canada.

While wait times have been removed for those that qualify for EI benefits specific to COVID-19, many employees still worry they may have to exhaust their sick leave or vacation days—if those are even part of their employment contract. 

“Employers may need to approach [sick and vacation pay] differently from a policy perspective,” says Ducoffe.

WHAT EMPLOYERS NEED TO DO

First and foremost, a company policy should state that if an employee feels sick, don’t come in, notes Ducoffe. “Employers need to urge employees to stay at home and follow proper call-in procedures. While it may be perceived as unfair, the overarching goal is to reduce the potential for the virus to spread,” says Ducoffe.

Where feasible, employers are encouraging or mandating a remote work policy and minimizing face-to-face contact. Industry leaders such as Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google and KPMG are among many that have put these types of policies in motion.

For those employees unable to work remotely, if they are aware they have symptoms and come into work anyway, they should be subject to disciplinary action, says Ducoffe. “They are knowingly putting their co-workers at risk. That’s not acceptable,” he says. Employees who have recently travelled outside of Canada should also ensure they self-isolate for 14 days.

Following are some additional guidelines employers should consider during the outbreak:

  • Clearly detail your compensation and work-from-home policies.
  • Consider waiving carry-over limitations for sick days for these specific cases.
  • Educate employees on proper hygiene practices and procedures and social distancing guidelines, including keeping a distance of approximately two metres from others and avoiding crowded places.
  • Ensure there is a constant supply of tissues, hand sanitizers, and wipes for those who cannot work remotely.
  • Educate yourself on employer guidelines. 

In addition, every organization should have an updated infectious disease operational policy, says Ian Culbert, executive director, Canadian Public Health Association in Ottawa. “We just updated ours from the H1N1 pandemic to include alternative work arrangement policies. They weren’t the norm during the last outbreak,” he says.

WHAT EMPLOYEES NEED TO DO

There are also fundamentals, such as social distancing, employees who have to work on-site need to keep in mind. “Employees have to go that extra step for their co-workers as they would to protect family members,” says Culbert. He also offers the following advice:

  • Step up good hygiene practices across the board. Follow the basic practices: cover your mouth with your arm or tissues when you sneeze or cough, immediately dispose of tissues, wash hands frequently, and wipe down work surfaces. “It’s just stepping up basic good hygiene practices,” he says.
  • Don’t touch your mouth, nose or eyes without washing your hands first.
  • Self-isolate if you feel sick or have any reason for concern. “The golden rule is, if you have any symptoms you shouldn’t go into work,” says Culbert.
  • Be hyper-vigilant if you have travelled, especially if you think you were around people who may have been sick or coughing a lot. 
  • Follow medical advice. “The illness will pass much more quickly and be less risky for others with proper rest and care,” he says.
  • If you are showing symptoms of COVID-19 and have reasonable cause to believe you’ve been in contact with a known case, contact your local health authority to be screened, and if necessary, tested. “Do not simply show up at an emergency room,” Culbert advises.
  • Stay informed on the latest government updates.

While there are formal precautions in place, it is ultimately up to individuals to follow directions, notes Culbert. “Don’t think you’re immune or the rules don’t apply or it can’t happen. If you do as you are told, it will make all the difference,” he says.

SAFETY MEASURES FOR CPAs

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, CPAs are facing new challenges with the way they work, especially since tax season in full swing. 

“We need to be concerned about our own healthy safety as well as the entire team,” says CPA Stan Swartz of Infomoney Solutions Inc. “Consider using gloves and hand sanitizer when handling clients’ documents. Don’t sit close to clients in meetings. Ask about client’s health prior to allowing them into the office.”

As accountants work long hours, Swartz point out their resistance to disease can be lowered. He suggests getting more rest, going for a walk outside, eating healthy and taking supplements like vitamin D. “Set hard deadlines for the receipt of client information,” he adds. “Don’t let their tardiness impact your health.”

MORE COVID-19 UPDATES

Stay up-to-date with the latest news related to the accounting profession, including a compilation of external resources and online news articles, from avoiding fraud to explaining potential financial reporting and audit implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With files from Sophie Nicholls Jones