Over the past several weeks, news of the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV or Coronavirus) has dominated our newsfeeds, which at the time of writing has three confirmed cases in Ontario, two of which are in Toronto. The virus has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO) and in order to control the outbreak, China has responded with an aggressive strategy and taken the extraordinary step of confining residents in the city of Wuhan (the epicentre of the outbreak) to their homes.

Although, the consequences for Canadians are still uncertain, many employers are rightfully questioning how the Coronavirus may affect the workplace. It is never too soon to begin preparing your approach on how to manage this developing issue.

Symptoms and Transmission

At this time, it's unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people. Symptoms include:
- fever
- cough
- difficulty breathing
- Pneumonia

In severe cases, infection can lead to death.

Currently, there is no vaccine that can prevent the 2019-nCoV infection. Health officials have advised Canadians to take everyday preventative actions such as avoiding close contact with people who are sick, washing hands often with soap and water and to stay home when feeling ill.

Workplace Safety and Legal Concerns

Typically, an employee who has fallen ill due to the Coronavirus or is self-quarantining as a result of possible exposure is afforded the same discretion and subject to the same procedures as an employee who is unable to work due to an illness. In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act, 2000 provides that an eligible employee is entitled to take three days of unpaid sick leave for personal illness, injury, or medical emergency per calendar year. If however, an employee is refusing to work due to a fear of contracting the Coronavirus in the workplace, the employer must respond in compliance with its legal duties under occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation. In addition, under provincial workplace health and safety laws, employers have an obligation to take every reasonable step to ensure a safe workplace.

Although the Coronavirus is not believed to be an epidemic as of yet, employers should still consider how their business could be disrupted, review and update their policies pertaining to transmittable illnesses and assess the relevant legislation to ensure that they are informed of any probable legal consequences should the state of affairs escalate.

How Employers Should Prepare

  • encouraging good hygiene, including hand washing
  • maintain good ventilation in the workplace
  • have up-to-date sick or leave policies that are clearly communicated to staff
  • encourage employees to stay home when they are sick
  • allow for employees to work at home or in staggered shifts should they encounter symptoms
  • having a policy which requires individuals with flu symptoms to stay at home and not to report to work — this includes workers, contractors and visitors.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.