We received many questions during our recent webinar, “COVID-ucation: Employers, Parents, School, and the Pandemic”. In a difficult time like this, we wanted to make sure the answers to these challenging questions were available, so we’ve created another multi-part question series on our blog to help ensure employers and HR professionals have access to the information they need.
Do employers have to pay employees who stay home with their children due to no daycare from COVID-19?
No. If a parent is still working from home, then you have to pay them for their work, of course. But if a parent can’t work because they have to care for their children due to COVID-19 closures, then they aren’t entitled to pay. Some jurisdictions offer job-protected leaves for employees in this situation, but these leaves are unpaid by the employer. If no such leave is available, employers can still offer an unpaid leave of absence if they don’t want to sever the employment relationship.
If an employee earns vacation time, but not pay, and the employee doesn’t want to take the time unpaid, what should we do?
The time is unpaid whether the employee wants it to be or not. Vacation time is earned based on completed years of service; vacation pay is earned as a percentage of earnings during the entitlement year. If an employee took a twelve-month unpaid leave, for example, they would still be entitled to their two weeks’ vacation and four percent vacation pay (or whatever applies to them normally), but since four percent of zero is zero, their vacation pay would be nothing.
Most employees are likely to have earned some vacation pay this year, though, since closures didn’t start until March. Let’s say your employee is entitled to the normal two weeks’ vacation and four percent vacation pay, but due to COVID-19, they were on an unpaid leave for six months in 2020. In 2021, that employee would still have two weeks’ vacation to use, but their vacation pay would only be half as much as they’re used to, since they only earned half as much in the entitlement year.
Of course, nothing stops an employer from offering additional paid vacation, and if your collective agreement or employment contract already provided more generous terms than legislation requires, you’re still bound by those. Legislation requires employees to receive their vacation time and any vacation pay they earn; even if they earn no pay, they still must receive that time, and employers generally have the authority to schedule or assign vacation for their employees if need be.
Our employees’ jobs require them to go onsite to customer locations. We’ve taken appropriate precautions, and we require PPE. What happens if employees say they’re still not comfortable performing their tasks? Do we have to accommodate that? What if they have a medical condition that puts them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19?
Under occupational health and safety legislation, employers have a responsibility to take every reasonable precaution to protect employees. Depending on the hazards employers identify in the workplace, these precautions includes training, PPE, and other forms of controls. COVID-19 created uncertainty about what precautions were reasonable, but at this point in the pandemic, we all have a pretty good idea of how to keep ourselves reasonably safe. Some risk is unavoidable, but wearing masks, practising physical distancing, regularly washing our hands, and disinfecting and sanitizing high-contact surfaces all help reduce the risk of infection.
That said, employees still have the right to refuse unsafe work, and employers need to take these refusals seriously. If an employee couldn’t keep themselves safe (for example, they cannot wear a mask because of a diagnosed medical condition), then it’s plausible that the employer would have to accommodate them by finding alternative protective measures or alternative work, up to the point of undue hardship.
There’s still a lot of fear around COVID-19, so it’s important to educate employees on the risks, as well as demonstrating how you’ve addressed those risks to keep them safe. We offer training for employees, along with a wide assortment of other resources, to help them stay safe.
Would letting others know an individual has COVID-19 be a breach of confidential information?
Probably, so be careful. This is a difficult position for employers. On the one hand, you need to inform employees and clients if they may have been exposed to COVID-19 in your workplace. On the other hand, you need to protect an employee’s privacy, and specifically medical information. You can reconcile these two responsibilities by not disclosing that it was an employee—and certainly not disclosing which employee tested positive. Inform employees, clients, visitors, and so on that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 in your workplace, but not how that exposure occurred. Public health officials need to know who was exposed so that they can perform contact tracing, but your other employees don’t.
In addition to questions from our webinar, we’ve also received many questions regarding the potential effects the school year could have on the workplace. With school just starting and uncertainty ahead, we’ve created a COVID-19 School Disruption Checklist to help employers develop best practices for possible workplace disruptions arising from COVID-19 in schools. Download for FREE today.
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