Coronavirus: What if your employer asks you to self-quarantine?

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COVID-19 quarantine concerns for workers
Questions surrounding what rights workers have if they have to quarantine themselves in regards to Corona virus concerns. Global's Malika Karim talks to an employment lawyer from Pitblado Law in Winnipeg – Mar 4, 2020

Editor’s Note: This story was published before the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a pandemic and Canada’s chief health officer labelled the virus a “serious public health threat.” For the latest coronavirus news, click here.

Some Canadian companies have started instructing employees to self-quarantine upon return from overseas trips to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Manulife Financial Corp. is requiring employees to observe a 14-day self-quarantine if they or anyone they live with has travelled to China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. Home Depot of Canada Inc. has placed a hold on all employee travel to and from Asia and Italy until further notice.

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Any employees who have returned from Asia and Italy within the last two weeks are being told to stay home for 14 days before returning to work.

READ MORE: Canada issues travel advisory as Italy grapples with coronavirus

Both companies have told The Canadian Press they will follow the government’s guidance on how to deal with the virus known as COVID-19.

Canada’s government is currently advising people returning from abroad to monitor their health for fever, cough and difficulty breathing for 14 days after they make it home.

Canadians who have travelled to Hubei province in China in the last 14 days are being told to limit their contact with others by self-isolating and staying home for two weeks from the date they left Hubei.

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How coronavirus is impacting the economy around the world

“As many workplaces are either enclosed spaces or areas where groups of people gather in reasonably close contact with each other, employers should take reasonable measures to try to limit exposure to and transmission of the virus,” said Lior Samfiru, labour and employment lawyer at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP in Toronto.

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Occupational health and safety legislation differs in each province and territory, but in most jurisdictions, employers have a duty to promote and protect the health and safety of employees.

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However, this might be difficult for workers who can’t afford to miss work or for those whose work can’t be done remotely. During the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to know your rights as an employee.

Employee rights

“Employees have a right to a safe and healthy workplace,” Samfiru said.

In Ontario, employees are also “protected against improper discrimination based on various grounds including disability (which includes illness and perception of disability/illness), ethnic origin and place of origin,” he said.

On Jan. 28, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) published a statement setting out its view that “discriminatory action against any persons or communities because of an association with the Wuhan novel coronavirus, perceived or otherwise, is prohibited by the Ontario Human Rights Code.”

READ MORE: Here’s why frequent handwashing is recommended in preventing spread of COVID-19

“Importantly, the statement included the following advice: ‘The OHRC encourages people to take precautions based on the most current advice from public health officials. Reactions based on stereotypes must not replace responsible actions based on evidence,'” Samfiru said.

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However, in most jurisdictions, employers have the right to take measures to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus and other illnesses. If there’s a perceived risk, employers can ask you to stay home.

“Many employers have taken the approach of asking employees to work from home as an option,” said Busayo Faderin, employment lawyer at Monkhouse Law.

Can you employer ask you to stay at home?

Your employer can ask you to stay home if you have “high fever, coughing, difficulty breathing and [you have] recently travelled to an ‘impacted area’ or [have] been exposed to someone with the virus,” Samfiru said.

“That person could be asked to stay home and, importantly, to consult a doctor. This would be justifiable based on published guidance from public health authorities.”

Employers should be cautious about asking employees to stay home from work so as to avoid “improper discrimination.” That’s discrimination against employees due to things like disability, ethnicity and place of origin, Samfiru said.

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“In trying to ensure a healthy work environment, employers should be careful to avoid decision-making based on presumption, stereotype or fear, and instead make decisions — including decisions about who should be permitted to work — based on objective fact and information,” he said.

“The best source of objective fact and information regarding this virus is available from public health authorities and employers are best advised to heed such information in determining whether or not a particular employee poses a risk to the health of others.”

When it comes to payment, employers should be careful to review their internal policies and the work arrangements of individual employees, Faderin said.

If employers want to ask employees to stay at home unpaid, they should first review “the individual employment contract or in the union setting, a collective bargaining agreement, to see whether they can do so legally,” she said.

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“Employers should really be taking all precautions to try to ensure employees are able to continue working to avoid any financial harm to employees.”

Keeping your workplace healthy

During the outbreak, employers should be focused on keeping their workplace healthy.

Samfiru makes the following recommendations for how to do so:

  • Employers should proactively alert and educate employees about the coronavirus symptoms, such as fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and pneumonia, and encourage employees to consult with healthcare professionals if they experience such symptoms.
  • Employers should refer to and rely on information available from public health sources. There are government websites which provide a wealth of information, including information about recommended precautions.
  • Employers should consider obtaining/downloading information from these sources and consider posting such information in the workplace.
  • Employers should consider educating employees about recommended hygiene practices, such as proper hand-washing procedures, proper protocols to follow if coughing or sneezing, and so on.
  • Employers should consider ordering more than the usual supply of sanitizers and other cleaning products to ensure availability.
  • Employers should review and refine as necessary cleaning and disinfecting procedures and protocols, especially in regards to commonly-touched surfaces.
  • Employers should review and communicate about procedures that employees should follow to contact the workplace when they are ill and unable to work.

— With files from Tara Deschamps at the Canadian Press

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