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Return to work raises crucial legal questions for organizations

Reviewing and updating workplace policies are a key priority for employers.

As employees return to the workplace, there are many questions around the legal ground rules for employers. Adding to the challenge is the fact that there are few, if any, legal precedents to guide organizations in these unprecedented times. “There’s not a lot of clarity at this point,” says Emily Siu, a lawyer at the SpringLaw employment law firm in Toronto. Here are three key issues keeping employers up at night.

The shift comes with consequences, experts say. According to new research from Robert Half Canada, more than half (56 per cent) of employers say the cost of making a bad recruiting choice is higher than it was pre-pandemic.

Still, given that remote work is likely here to stay for many and that virtual hiring offers access to larger talent pools, we are likely to see more, rather than less, remote recruiting going forward.

Here are four tactics that can help you make the right hire.

Workplace safety

Health Canada’s ongoing guidance on COVID-19 prevention includes a layered approach of common practices – keeping interactions to a minimum, avoiding crowds, masking, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette – along with vaccination. The common practices can easily be adopted into workplace safety policies, but actually mandating vaccination is something each employer will need to weigh out carefully. The nature of their industry and the working conditions will influence this discussion. Whether to implement a workplace vaccination policy is definitely front and centre of employers’ conversations, says Howard Levitt, of Levitt Sheikh Chaudhri & Swann (LSCS Law). Many of the legal decisions moving forward will depend on whether the courts will consider safety more important than individual privacy, he says.

“Employees that don’t get vaccinated have a mistaken sense that privacy and human rights are valid legal arguments. Although privacy rights apply, they are trivial compared to the overriding safety considerations, so have no legal impact. As a result, vaccination policies are legally permissible, particularly if employees are working closely together or in situations in which working from home is not an option.”

Accommodating exceptions

As with any employment situation, there will be exceptions that need to be addressed. 

“Employers should not discriminate against employees who have legitimate human rights reasons for not getting vaccinated,” says Siu. “These workers should be accommodated up to the point of undue hardship for the employer.”

This specifically pertains to people with medical conditions or religious reasons for not getting vaccinated. “However, they must be substantive reasons, not simply a matter of minor medical issues or a personal opinion, particularly one recently adopted rather than genuine adherence to an organized religion, which bans vaccinations as a significant tenet,” says Levitt. 

If an organization decides to implement a vaccine policy, protocols will need to be established around employees who are not vaccinated, adds James Fu, partner with Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG) in Toronto. “Will there be different rules for distancing and masking? Should employers have badges or stickers to designate who is vaccinated? Each organization will have its own culture and approach.”

Employment terms

The impact of COVID-19 has also opened the doors to potential constructive and wrongful dismissal actions, particularly for remote workers not wishing to return to the workplace. As such, employers need to be mindful of the terms of employment on record. In many cases, these may need to be updated and signed to accommodate the current climate and requirements.

“Employers can provide a time frame for the employee to return to work,” says Levitt. “If they refuse to return, then the employer has the right to terminate their employment.”

Siu confirms she is seeing a strong interest on the part of employers around return-to-work requirements. “It’s really dependent on circumstances, such as the safety of the work conditions, the employer’s capacity for risk and the industry,” she says.

How employers can minimize their risk

There are both legal and practical measures employers can take to mitigate potential risks. For example, they can:

  • Review workplace policies, taking into account all the current factors and circumstances, as well as local law requirements, and then adjust their policies accordingly.
  • Be transparent about opening plans with employees. Providing clear direction reduces the chances of potential legal challenges.
  • Ease the employees return to the workplace and be supportive during the transition. “Returning requires time for adjustment,” says Siu. “Considering the employees’ needs can go a very long way to avoiding resignations or tricky legal proceedings down the road.” 
  • Take all reasonable measures to create a safe work environment. Prepare a safety plan and ensure it is up to date with current health guidelines. Employers are legally required to have a safety plan that can be provided to visiting health and safety inspectors.

Given the lack of legal precedents, employment issues will be determined on a case-by-case basis. In the meantime, Levitt notes, “What employers should be doing is decide what they want to do and build a legal strategy around that.”

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