With doctors bracing for a potential “tripledemic” as summer comes to an end, people working in an office may be questioning what they can do if they are working alongside someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 or may be sick with another illness like the flu.
Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, various policies were in place in an effort to limit people from getting sick, including quarantine requirements, sick leave legislation and working from home.
Last year, the federal government legislated 10 paid sick days for federally regulated employees, which took effect in December 2022. That same year, British Columbia put in place five permanent paid days.
But other provinces have a mixture of rules.
For example, Quebec workers are entitled to two days — though that was also the case in that province before the pandemic. Ontario, meanwhile, ended its sick leave program this past March, ending workers’ ability to access three paid days under the province’s temporary program.
But as some companies have moved away from working from home, and provinces have dropped quarantine requirements, it could mean you may be working next to someone who is ill.
Jon Pinkus, a partner at the Labour and Employment Group at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, said if an employee does have such a concern, the first thing they should do is speak with management.
He said in Ontario, the Ministry of Labour expects employees to try and resolve things before taking things further, and determine if there’s a practical solution.
“That’s what any employee should do and that’s what any employer should consider if someone’s coming to them with that kind of complaint,” he said.
He added that if a resolution was not reached, a government inspector could be brought in, but they would be working to determine if the employer was following provincial guidelines.
For example, if quarantine requirements were to be brought back into force in Ontario and an employer failed to abide by them, Pinkus said an employee shouldn’t be penalized if they refused to come to the office — in fact, an inspector would likely order the employer to send the sick individual home.
But workers should be careful about refusing to come in as it could also depend on the employer.
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“So employees do have to be careful and not just assume, ‘Well, this seems unsafe to me, so I’m not going to accept it,’” Pinkus said.
It’s why medical professionals and doctors say paid sick days are still needed nationwide.
Dr. Mara Waters, an infectious diseases doctor and member of the Decent Work and Health Network (DWHN), said a lack of sick days can lead to more people working while sick.
“They might feel that their boss might think that they’re unreliable and they might lose out on shifts,” she said. “So it’s with great moral distress that people go to work sick.”
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A November 2022 report by the National Partnership for Women and Families found that people without paid sick days were 1.5 times more likely to report going to work with a contagious illness.
Waters added that some studies have shown paid sick days would not be a massive cost to employers.
For example, a study by the Centre for Future Work that analyzed a proposed 10-day sick leave policy in B.C. found it would increase business costs by 0.21 per cent of existing expenses. That province eventually made it so eligible employees were able to access five paid sick days provided they had worked for their employer for a minimum of 90 days.
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“When people get sick, it means that more people get sick, more people are using health-care dollars and that does come out of the public purse,” Waters said. “There’s really no financial downside to providing paid sick days.”
However, as advocates continue to push for paid sick days, Pinkus said while it may not be mandatory, employers should consider having a clear policy surrounding employees working while ill.
“It is always good to have if you want to prevent disputes from arising,” he said. “Having a clear policy that you can point to at the employee is a sign that it’s not vague.
“It’s very specific exactly what’s going to happen if someone is sick with COVID and someone is unable to attend the workplace. Here are the steps we want to take, here are your rights under this policy, then an employee doesn’t have to think, ‘Is this legal under the Occupational Health and Safety Act?’”
He added that it also then gives employees the ability to decide if they want to continue working at the organization if, for example, they are uncomfortable with that policy.
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