Christian Dubé, Minister of Health and Social Services, announced new public health guidelines (including going back to remote work) on December 14, 2021, in response to an increase in COVID-19 cases in Quebec.
The new Omicron variant has arrived in Ontario – a variant that is two to three times more contagious than the earlier Delta variant. Among other reactions, the government is urging firms to reintroduce work-from-home opportunities. All Treasury Board staff have already been directed to work from home.
Points For Quebec Employees and Employers To Note
- Employers are accountable for their employees’ health and safety regardless of whether work is performed remotely or in person. We note that the Administrative Labor Tribunal has already classified COVID-19 infection as an employment injury, sending a clear message to employers about their responsibilities during this pandemic. Employers must provide safeguards for their employees, and those who are able to do so should prioritize working from home for the time being. Additionally, these employers may wish to evaluate or have reviewed their work-from-home policy, which carries its own set of legal consequences.
- François Vincent, Regional Vice-President (Quebec) of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), voiced alarm about this development, stating that 64 percent of the province’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are unable to offer remote labor due to their business model. According to Mr. Vincent, whose comments were published in La Presse, it is still viable to maintain worker health and safety in the physical workplace “given the high vaccination rate and all the steps enterprises have taken, including some that go beyond the instructions.” (According to Translation by Lexology)
- Employers whose operations demand a physical presence in the workplace should choose which strategies to prioritize in order to ensure the safety of all employees. Employers are increasingly instituting mandatory vaccination and screening programs. Recently, a grievance arbitrator supported the constitutionality of a vaccination policy while acknowledging that publishing an individual’s immunization status constitutes an invasion of privacy. In some circumstances, screening tests may be preferable to mandated vaccination, particularly because the tests are often regarded as less intrusive than immunization. However, it is unknown how efficient these tests are at preventing infections in the workplace, given that the Omicron form is significantly more contagious and that these tests have a lower rate of accuracy and reliability than PCR tests.
Employers are nonetheless responsible for protecting their employees regardless of the manner of work (remote or in-person) or the precautions in place. Employers may be held liable for COVID-19 infections contracted on the job in certain circumstances. Prioritizing compliance with new governmental directives is critical, as is assessing the safeguards if the work cannot be conducted remotely. Several companies in Canada have already been giving their employees the liberty to work from home.
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