What does restrictions lifting mean for the workplace? Advice from our HR experts
Employers have had to quickly adapt their workplace as COVID-19 restrictions changed over these past few years. Now, governments across many jurisdictions have lifted or begun to lift these measures. If you’re wondering how these changes affect your workplace, you aren’t alone. In fact, one of the trending questions our HR advisors have been getting is: Can we maintain some or all of the protective measures for our workplace?
To help you navigate this transitional period, we asked our team of HR experts what employers should know about the end of COVID-19 restrictions.
Q: What are my legislative responsibilities as an employer?
A: Health and safety legislation, like Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, states that employers have the duty to take “every precaution reasonable in the circumstances” for the protection of a worker. This means it is your duty to provide your employees with a safe environment.
To keep your workplace safe, you should conduct ongoing workplace risk assessments. The purpose of a risk assessment is to consider risks and workplace hazards for your business and employees. Even when measures are not mandated—like COVID-19 precautions—it is still your responsibility to assess whether they are needed to reduce risk in your workplace.
Q: Do we have to end workplace restrictions when the government lifts their mandates?
A: The government lifting its public health directives does not prohibit or invalidate any COVID-19-related measures you have in place. It is ultimately up to you as an employer to decide what workplace safety measures are needed to keep your workers safe.
Q: Can we ask employees to continue wearing masks at work?
A: You can keep mask requirements if you determine, based on a risk assessment, that masks are necessary to minimize infection at work.
Even if you decide it is safe to eliminate or lighten masking requirements, keep in mind that people may have different comfort levels or health concerns. Encourage employees to continue to wear a mask if they choose. Communicate this to all employees to foster an environment where everyone respects each other’s decisions.
Q: Do employees still need to do a health screening before entering the workplace?
A: A risk assessment process will help you determine whether to continue screening employees. From there, you can decide whether active screening or passive screening is the best option for your workplace. Here’s the difference between the two:
Active screening refers to the standardized COVID-19 health questions employees answer and submit (electronically or in paper form) each day before they enter the workplace.
Passive screening is when employees are responsible for reviewing the screening questions daily and reaching out to their supervisor if an issue comes up. Employees are not required to document their screening results in electronic or paper form.
If you decide to implement passive screening, let your employees know that the mandatory active screening will no longer be required or recorded. Consider posting the passive screening questions on bulletin boards and doors. This will help remind employees that they should communicate with their supervisor as soon as possible if they experience any symptoms before or during work.
Q: What should we do if we want to rescind a vaccination policy?
A: After your risk assessment, you may decide that it is time to end a mandatory vaccination policy you put in place. You must immediately recall any unvaccinated employees whom you put on a leave of absence or suspension without pay.
When recalling employees, there are a few additional questions to consider:
- Ongoing health and safety measures: Do unvaccinated employees have to wear masks or be tested, even if other employees are not? If so, this needs to be justified based on legislative health and safety obligations—you must determine that such actions are required to provide a safe workplace for the returning employees and their co-workers.
- Adjustments to work duties: Can or should duties be adjusted to limit risk and exposure for employees and their co-workers? If your business serves the broader community, you should also consider how to best maintain the overall safety of your clients.
- Effect on morale: What steps are needed to foster a respectful environment? There may be some resentment or hesitation from other employees about colleagues who did not comply with the policy and are now returning to work. Be prepared to deal with any conflicts or concerns that may arise.
Q: What should we consider as we transition back to the office?
A: If you are planning to transition employees who worked from home due to the pandemic back to the office, do it as quickly as restrictions allow. A delay may result in a temporary work-from-home arrangement becoming a permanent term and condition of employment. Once that happens, it becomes legally difficult for you to change it.
If an employee submits a workplace accommodation request to continue working from home, it is your duty as an employer to review the request. You also have the right to investigate and clarify any medical documentation an employee provides indicating they cannot return to the office. If some of your team will continue to work offsite, implement strategies and policies to keep remote and onsite workers united.
Remember to never discuss or speculate on any health-related information about your employees—this is protected information under privacy legislation, so it’s against the law to do so. Step in quickly if you notice employees discussing or speculating about the health status of other employees.
COVID-19 has and will likely continue to be a fluid situation. Continue to monitor public health directives, laws, and regulations in your jurisdiction. Requirements could be set by your provincial government, local or provincial public health officials, or municipal bylaws.
Once public health restrictions are relaxed or eliminated in your jurisdiction, conduct a workplace health and safety risk assessment to determine if you should continue health and safety measures. Remember to review your risk assessment regularly.
Trending challenges for employers across Canada
Our team of HR advisors answers over 15,000 calls a year from clients coast to coast on all things HR. As restrictions lift and businesses move back to onsite work, we have been getting a lot of questions like:
- Can we require employees who worked from home during the pandemic to return to the physical workplace?
- How do I address an employee who comes to me with concerns about another employee’s vaccination status?
- One of my employees provided me with a doctor’s note indicating they must work from home due to medical reasons. What do I do?
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