COVID-19 Updates and Q&A for Small Business Owners


As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread, business owners are facing some difficult decisions with regard to reduction of staff, reduction of operating hours, or even temporary closures and layoffs. There are many measures that can-and are required to, be taken by employers to both protect the health of their employees and reduce impact to their business. Below are answers to the most frequent questions we are receiving, and an update of current requirements/ recommendations for employers.

In the event I need to temporarily close the business, can I lay-off employees?

Yes. Employers are taking this step to maintain a safe work environment, pursuant to Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety regulations. Employees will be eligible to apply for Employment Insurance, or may utilize paid time off if available- i.e. paid sick days, accrued vacation time, lieu time. You may lay-off an employee for up to 13 weeks without termination pay being required. The employee may be eligible for employment insurance benefits.

What are employer obligations during extended school closures?

At the time this article was written (March 16), employer obligations remain the same as a regular request for ‘Accommodation Based on Family Status’. The employee may request the time off work, however must show the employer that they have first exhausted all other options such as relatives who may be able to care for their child(ren), baby sitters, neighbours etc. Where there are two working parents, it is expected that the request for time off be split equally to limit the impact to any one employer. If there are no other reasonable options, you must grant the time away from work. This is being introduced as a new class of job protected leave.

Do I need to pay employees for sick leave or self-isolation/ quarantine?

As of today this is not required in Ontario- but it may actually be in the employer’s best interest to do so. If your business does not offer paid days off, it is recommended to expand your policy temporarily (most commonly offered is 10 days). It could be far more costly if one sick employee comes to the workplace and infects others- including WSIB claims and associated rate premium increases. Offering paid time will allow employees to stay away if they are sick but cannot afford to take the time off. Not to mention, employees could expose you to illness, which may cause even more disruption to your operations (and health).

What about paid time during extended school closures?

No, but as above you may wish to consider it if the business has the means. Otherwise it may be an unpaid leave of absence. There are special circumstances where EI may be available (i.e. a child becomes sick)- let employees know to check if they are eligible. Make sure you apply your policy consistently across all employees.

Concrete steps for small business owners to minimize the impact to both employees and the business (and more broadly, the community).

  • Immediately implement a policy that requires employees who have flu-like symptoms, is directly caring for someone with flu-like symptoms, or who may have reasonably be exposed to the virus to STAY HOME.

Requirement:

Require any employee with flu-like symptoms, or employees who have been exposed to certain highly contagious illnesses (through travel or residing with someone who has recently travelled internationally), to remain at home. Employees who are returning from international travel must self-isolate for 14 days.

  • For employees who are not ill, it is strongly recommended they be directed to work remotely where the nature of their duties allows. The more people you keep physically away from your workplace, the lower the risk. Other options depending on the nature of the business include staggering work times/ shifts to keep as few employees as possible physically together. You may also wish to consider reducing hours- but make sure your employment contract provides for this option, as there are legal implications.

Recommendation:

Review each role in your business and get creative about how the duties could be performed away from the office. Establish clear expectations with the employee regarding response time, deadlines or targets that must be met.

  • Remind employees of Employment Insurance (EI) sickness benefits.Where an employee’s earnings have dropped at least 40% over a 1 week period, they may be eligible for EI benefits for up to 16 weeks.There are special temporary provisions for EI to cover periods of required isolation or quarantine.The latest info can be found at: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/corporate/notices/coronavirus.html

For more information in this unprecedented situation, and/ or to develop a policy to minimize risk to your business, please contact us.

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Phone: (416) 797-7272

Email: sarah.barclay@synapsehr.ca