The swine flu, or H1N1, outbreak is subsiding somewhat, however, this potential pandemic created a number of challenges for employers, and raised the issue of how employers should best manage these types of events. Questions being raised include: What can employers do about employees intending to travel to or returning from trips to “hot spots”? Do employers have any say in where their employees choose to spend their vacation time? How can employers reduce the risk of absenteeism? How should employers treat sick or quarantined employees?
Employers should consider putting a plan in place to communicate prevention strategies and to cope with any potential increase in absenteeism. This plan may not only apply to swine flu but other similar situations. Depending on the nature of their business, and size of work force, absenteeism may create particular operational problems for employers.
It is important for employers to make their plan consistent with existing law and legislation. Pandemics do not give employers the right to ignore the law. Consequently, employers should consider their obligations under employment standards, human rights, occupational health and safety, workers compensation and privacy legislation. It is important to review employment policies, benefit plans, employment contracts, collective agreements and applicable legislation to ensure that the employer is aware of potential legal consequences before a pandemic strikes.
Tips for employers include the following:
Communicate Prevention Techniques:
- Ensure employees are educated on the symptoms, risks and prevention of swine flu.
- Remind employees to wash their hands frequently (by posting signs in washrooms).
- Encourage employees not to touch surfaces that may be contaminated with the flu virus and to avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Provide hand sanitizers and respiratory masks, where appropriate.
- Review cleaning procedures in place to regularly disinfect equipment, work stations and the workplace generally.
- Consider introducing a policy requiring disclosure of employee personal travel to a swine flu or other health “hot spots” such as Mexico.
- Consider a return-to-work guideline that outlines whether employees returning from a hot spot will be required to stay away from work or obtain medical clearance before they return to work. If the employee requested to stay home, consider whether they will be eligible to apply for sick pay or be paid for time away from work.
- Assess staffing needs, including alternative work locations, overtime agreements and alternative means of getting work done without direct human-to-human contact (such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing).
- Require sick employees to stay home.
- Contact insurers to determine sickness or disability coverage, including that for employees who have been ordered to stay in quarantine but who are not sick.
- Consider accommodating quarantined employees by use of alternative work arrangements.
- Ensure supervisors and managers are familiar with work-refusal obligations and steps, as required under applicable health and safety legislation.
Further information may be obtained from www.fightflu.ca and www.vch.ca/story.