Ontario Reopening Plan: How to Return to Work After COVID-19

On April 28, 2020, Premier Doug Ford provided the framework including a 3-stage process for Ontario’s Reopening Plan after COVID-19. The reopening will be gradual and will occur in stages. There will be two-to-four weeks between the launch of each stage to allow provincial health officials to assess conditions before moving to the next one. The stages are set out :

  1. Opening up select workplaces that were ordered to close and that can meet current public health guidelines, opening some outdoor spaces, allowing some small gatherings, and permitting hospitals to begin offering some non-urgent and scheduled surgeries,
  2. Opening more workplaces (which may include service industries and retail workplaces) and outdoor spaces and allowing some larger public gatherings, and
  3. Opening all workplaces responsibly and further relaxing restrictions on gatherings while continuing protections for vulnerable populations.

Recently, on May 3, 2020, the Alberta government published helpful Workplace Guidance for Business Owners to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 among workers, volunteers and patrons. The document outlines the criteria that should be addressed in individual, written workplace policies and procedures established to address the COVID-19 pandemic response and may constitute useful guidance for workplaces all over Canada.

On May 14, 2020, Ontario provided details on Stage 1 of reopening.

As early say Saturday May 16 some recreational businesses such as gold courses, marinas, private parks and campgrounds are able to open.  Then on Tuesday May 19 the ‘first stage’ of reopening will take place and will allow the opening of:

  • Retail services that are not in shopping malls and have separate street-front entrances with measures in place that can enable physical distancing, such as limiting the number of customers in the store at any one time and booking appointments beforehand or on the spot.
  • Seasonal businesses and recreational activities for individual or single competitors, including training and sport competitions conducted by a recognized national or provincial sport organization. This includes indoor and outdoor non-team sport competitions that can be played while maintaining physical distancing and without spectators, such as tennis, track and field and horse racing.
  • Animal services, specifically pet care services, such as grooming and training, and regular veterinary appointments.
  • Indoor and outdoor household services that can follow public health guidelines, such as housekeepers, cooks, cleaning and maintenance.
  • Lifting essential workplace limits on construction.

Importantly for employers, the provincial government also released a list of 90 safety guidance documents which are organized by sector.

As Ontario is reopening, we provide some helpful pointers for businesses to consider in this article.

1. Phased Approach – Plans for Expansion and Restriction

It’s a marathon, prepare for reopening and contraction: have clearly communicated expansion and restriction plan to increase and decrease the number of employees in the workplace.

While the provincial government is expected to provide detailed instructions on when and how workplaces will open, it is important for employers to also do their part in limiting the spread and taking measures to ease into reopening. On June 16, 2020, the Ontario Government released a Guide on How to Develop a Workplace Safety Plan, to help employers to ensure that the workplace is safer for everyone.

Employers should consider a phased approach for employees returning to work. This could take various forms, for example, dividing specific days or weeks for small groups of employees to return to the workplace and slowing increasing the groups of employees over several weeks.

Keep in mind that while there should be a plan to expand, there should also be a communicated plan to restrict should the provincial government need to implement restrictions again based on a second wave of the virus.

2. Needs of your employees 

Reopening requires open communication: proactive communication may reduce workplace stress and increase productivity.

a. Open Communication

The virus has been a disruption and a source of unease for everyone. Be open with your employees. For any reopening plan to work, you will need buy-in from your workforce.

Communicate often, freely and openly, for example through the Joint Health and Safety Committee. A Joint Health and Safety Committee is required under workplace health and safety legislation and they will be particularly useful during this time to allow for managerial and employee communication. Your workplace may also find use in a dedicated COVID-19 committee with representation across your organization to discuss return to work policies, procedures and concerns.

During COVID-19 the Ministry of Labour has seen a massive increase in work stoppages, including the TTC which saw bus drivers refuse to work due to alleged unsafe conditions. According to an article in the Toronto Star, none of the work refusals have been allowed by the Ministry of Labour but the Ministry has issued many orders to employers requiring them to implement safer measures.

An employee is not able to refuse to return to the workplace merely out of fear of contagion. Implementing proactive measures will not only ensure an employer’s compliance with health and safety legislation but communicating what is being done to employees will also reduce disruptions due to refusals to work.

More information on whether an employee can refuse to come to work is included in Monkhouse Law’s post:  COVID-19 and the Workplace: What Employees Need to Know.

b. Updates to Healthy and Safety Policies

Occupational Health and Safety obligations including the obligation to take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of your employees, should be top of mind. In addition to the province’s safety guidelines, employers will need to consider their specific circumstances and how to implement the provincial recommendations.

Employers should consider implementing a specific increased sick leave policy requiring employees to stay home with pay if they are symptomatic. Daily health checks where an employee self declares that they are experiencing any symptoms may also be effective at keeping health at the top of everyone’s mind.

Employers should also consider implementing a procedure for how to deal with attendance issues or work refusals to address employee concerns efficiently and ensure consistency in how decisions are made across the organization.

c. Human Rights Considerations

As it seems unlikely that schools will be back before summer vacation, child-care concerns may continue to impact some employees even when provincial restrictions are loosened. These employees should be accommodated to allow them to continue to participate in the workplace remotely where possible.

Other human rights considerations could also arise including the need to care for sick family members or specific concerns for employees who may have underlying health conditions putting them at a higher risk.

Employers should be proactive to identify issues that may arise in their workplace and provide a framework for how those employees will be accommodated.

3. Maintain Social Distancing Before During and After Working Hours

Think of physical distancing every step of the way.

When employees return, consider your workspace layout and seek to maximize space to allow employees to practise distancing.

In a phased approach, while the office is not attended at full capacity employees should be encouraged to spread out around the office. Meetings with staff or with others should be limited, and where possible, possible conducted via teleconference, or, if necessary in person, conducted in an area with plenty of space. Video conferencing should be encouraged. Consider cancelling business travel altogether until there are no travel restrictions.

The ability to maintain social distancing is not just an in-office consideration but may also include transportation to the office or for meetings. Consider allowing employees to commute at off-peak traffic times or provide alternatives to public transportation through taxi chits or parking reimbursement.

4. Increase Cleanliness

Reopening: Implementing constant cleaning procedures during and after work.

Employers should also consider creating specific handwashing and wipe down policies. Part of the increased cleanliness measures could include making hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes or spray available and implementing daily or even hourly cleaning of high traffic areas.

If your workplace requires the public to access the space, consider allowing employees to wear masks or providing clear dividers to allow your employees to interact with members of the public safely.

Some of the suggestions above will inevitably increase costs for employers. Monkhouse Law’s post on Employers Frequently Asked Questions About Employment and COVID-19 provides useful information on government programs to help employers with these costs, including the wage subsidy, work sharing plans and small business loans.

About the Author: Samantha Lucifora is an Employment Lawyer and Senior Associate who helps employers with workplace investigations, drafting and implementing workplace policies and employment contracts. Alexandra Monkhouse is an Employment Lawyer and Partner who specializes in employment law.

Monkhouse Law is a boutique employment law firm and we are ready to help you prepare to reopen your business safely. Contact us for a free 30 minute consultation.

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