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COVID-19 - What employees should expect as they return to the office.

Some offices have remarkably stayed open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, others have staggered staff back to the office, but the majority of businesses scrambled early on to get their employees the technology they needed in order to successfully work from home full-time.

Expectantly, employees who have been working from home full-time have concerns with returning to the office due to perceived health risks and some are going so far as to look for new full-time remote opportunities with other organizations.

For those that do have a projected return to work date, the below is what you can expect and what your and your organization's responsibilities look like prior to your return to the office.

New OH&S Requirements for Employers

Jurisdictions like BC have implemented new OH&S rules which require companies to build a COVID-19 "Safety Plan". The COVID-19 Safety Plan ensures that employers complete an overall risk of exposure assessment at the workplace and that they have the proper policies, guidelines, and procedures in place in response to COVID-19. These plans are expected to be implemented, exercised and communicated to all staff. WorkSafeBC will be reviewing these plans and will be asking employers about the steps that they have taken to protect their workers during an inspection. WorksafeBC also posted health and safety protocols specific to industry that organizations will need to take into account when building their plan.

In Alberta, all businesses are required to adhere to the requirements according to the Chief Medical Officer of Health "CMOH" Orders and are asked to develop a COVID-19 "Relaunch Plan". Under Public Health Orders from the CMOH, businesses are required to implement practices to minimize the risk of transmission of infection among staff, provide procedures for rapid response if an attendee develops symptoms of illness, ensure that staff maintain high levels of sanitation and personal hygiene, and comply, to every extent possible, with this guidance and any other applicable Alberta Health requirements. They have also posted sector specific guidance documents in order to assist them in the development of their Relaunch Plan.

Employers in all jurisdictions will have requirements to comply with prior to bringing their staff back to work. If you are nervous about returning to work, make sure to check your local OH&S requirements so that you are familiar with what safety protocols have been imposed on your employer.

The Refusal to Work due to Perceived Unsafe Conditions

Some employees are anxious about their return to work and are wondering what their rights are in relation to their right to refuse unsafe work under OH&S guidelines in all jurisdictions.

As a general rule, if an employee is recalled to the workplace and the employer has met all requirements under OH&S guidelines, then the employee is required to return to the workplace. If the employee still refuses to return to the workplace, they may be subject to discipline or they may be considered to have resigned and will lose their ability to apply for benefits through Service Canada.

There may be special consideration for employees who request family accommodation under provincial or federal Human Rights legislation or are under quarantine orders as assigned by a medical professional.

Employees will want to make sure that they ask first what their employer has done in terms of meeting jurisdictional OH&S requirements. If at that time, they are still not satisfied with the employer's response to the new guidelines set, they can make a work refusal claim with their local WCB body. In this case an investigation will ensue and if at the end of the investigation the OH&S officer deems the workplace to have met all of the requirements set, the employee will be required to return to the workplace.

The Employee's Responsibility in their Return to the Office

Employees will be required to read, understand and acknowledge all newly posted guidelines and any new or revised Health & Safety policies that the employer has implemented and communicated to staff. Staff will be responsible to follow these guidelines and if not, could face consequences for non-compliance. Everyone should be held accountable during this time and will be held responsible for their own compliance with the new requirements.

Using public guidelines, recommendations and legal requirements in some municipal, provincial and federal jurisdictions, employees may be required to wear face masks, use hand sanitizer stations, follow social distancing protocols, but in all cases, to mind their own hygiene throughout the day to reduce the risk to others. Using electronic communication methods rather than stopping by someone's desk, giving them a call at their desk, or sending an IM is a great way to reduce contact with each other as well.

Some employers may have employees return in shifts, ones that have a more open work space with desks closer together. You may not be able to see your "work bestie" in the first few months of your return to the office, but that's not a bad thing if it means keeping yourself, your coworkers and your customers safe.

In any case, we all need to do what's right whether we agree with it or not to keep each other safe and keep our local businesses moving forward. Stay positive, stay safe and in all cases, be kind and respectful with each other as you return to your regular routine at the office.

If you are an employer and have any questions about the requirements in your jurisdiction, please give us a call at (403) 510-2532 or (250) 800-5656. We are here to help!

Article by Alicia Bolton, CEO & President @ OutsourceHR


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