Getting back to work in a pandemic
As the country slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials warn that we are not yet back to normal. In fact, normal may well be a very far way off. That said, provincial governments are announcing strategies to open businesses, get people back to work and breathe some life into some very hurting economies.
It’s a balance. Canadians’ health must be top priority, but their livelihoods – and the sustainability of their employers – is also important. So, as businesses slowly get back to business, most taking a staged approach, owners and operators may have a few things to considerin the weeks and months to come.
Many employees were laid off in March and April, the blow softened to a degree by provincial and federal supports. For some, the money was a lifesaver, but for many, it’s not enough to make up for all the lost income, and plenty of people are eager to get out of the house and get back to work.
But even some who are ready to return to work are afraid. They may be vulnerable to COVID-19 or fear bringing the virus home to someone else who’s vulnerable. So…can they refuse?
The short answer is no. Says Howard Levitt, a Toronto-based employment and labour lawyer, “there’s really no choice. If it’s a safe workplace, the employee has to go back to work.” (Find more on the rules here .)
If they fear their employer is not taking adequate precautions, workers can contact health inspectors, the WCB or the provincial Labour ministry. But their first step should be to talk to their bosses and find out what the employer is actually doing.
The reality is, most businesses don’t want to expose anyone to health risks. If your business has recently re-opened or is set to reopen soon, here are some things to consider to gain your employees’ confidence.
Give workers more breathing room. Literally. Physical distancing has been key to preventing the spread of COVID and, until there’s a vaccine, it should continue to be practised in public and in the workplace. You might look at creating greater distance between desks, staggering breaks and having employees work shifts so the workplace is less crowded.
Cleanliness is next to godliness. By now we all know that washing your hands is one of the best ways to fend off the virus. Remind returning employees to keep scrubbing while you stock up on washing supplies like soap, towels and hand sanitizer. Be sure to sanitize work areas and clean higher traffic areas and fixtures – like light switches, door knobs telephones and keyboards – often.
Make health a priority. It’s long been recommended that people stay home if they’re feeling unwell, but who hasn’t secretly judged that co-worker who calls in sick with the sniffles? Those days are over. Let employees know they must stay home if they have any COVID symptoms, like a runny nose or sore throat. Some businesses have begun taking employees’ temperatures at work, although depending on your province there could be complexities with doing so, including privacy issues.
Work from home. An interesting discovery that’s come out of the pandemic is that many people really can do their jobs as effectively from home. Employers who may have been leery of workers being out of their sight are now seeing the positives, like spending less on physical workspaces and finding ways to be more flexible with employees’ hours.
The world will gradually return to normal, but “normal” will look quite a bit different for many months to come. As your business continues to adapt, you can also continue to shape your new normal. Be creative and flexible and you may discover new opportunities in a changing world.