Your Rights in Times of Chaos – Legal Impact of COVID-19 Responses in Workplaces

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Many Albertans are directly or indirectly impacted by the global pandemic known officially as COVID-19; it’s all over the news, social media, and people’s minds. In response to the escalating situation, Alberta has recently announced a state of public health emergency. Below is a brief overview of what that means, and how your rights could be affected by measures in response to the situation.

Public Emergency

Under the Public Health Act, the Alberta Government can declare a state of public health emergency if there is a public health emergency requiring prompt co-ordination of action or special regulation of persons/property is required to protect public health. If not extended, it generally lasts 90 days or until it is terminated.

Such declaration grants the government power to acquire/use any real/personal property, to authorize conscription or require qualified person to render aid, or to authorize entry into any building or land without warrants. The powers include authorizing anyone ill with the pandemic or caring for family members ill with the pandemic to be absence from employment.

The Federal Government is also considering invoking the Emergencies Act. The Emergencies Act is seen as a last resort where there is a serious but temporary threat that cannot be dealt with under any other law of Canada. It grants the government powers to regulate travel, evacuate people, removing or requisitioning personal property, regulating distribution of essential goods and resources, or direct any person to render essential services. The government would also have power to impose fines or jail time on those that contravene any order or rule set under this Act. Once invoked, it can last for 90 days, or until it is revoked. It may also be extended if the situation has not improved within 90 days.

Privacy Rights

Employers do have a duty to take reasonable precaution to protect the health and safety of workers. Although an employer cannot stop an employee from personal travels, it is reasonable for an employer to require employees to disclose personal travel information.

Employers may also have the duty to collect from an employee who has tested positive for COVID-19 information necessary to fulfill its notification and reporting obligations. This allows applicable public health authority to track people that have been in contact with the employee and to take appropriate measures. However, the information should be kept confidential and only disclosed so far as necessary. If the employee does not consent to disclosure, employers should seek legal advice and proceed with caution.

Self-Isolate (Quarantine)

An employer may require an employee that has travelled anywhere outside of Canada to self-isolate for 14 days upon return (or such period recommended by public health authorities), whether they have symptoms or not. An employee that has not travelled but shows symptoms or was in contact with someone who has tested positive may also be required to self-isolate.

The Federal Government has recently made changes to Employment Insurance (EI) benefits to cater to those in quarantine. The changes include removing the one-week wait period so claimants’ pay includes the first week of their claim, removing the medical certificate requirement, as well as creating a priority application process.

Specific to Alberta, the Alberta Government has announced changes to the Employment Standards Code to allow 14 days of paid job-protected leave to cover the self-isolation period. To qualify, employees do not need a medical note, and do not need to have worked for an employer for 90 days. However, this leave does not apply to self-employed individuals or contractors.

Discrimination

Although the situation requires special measures to protect public safety, people should also ensure that actions taken do not lead to discrimination. The Alberta Human Rights Act protects against discrimination on protected grounds, including disability, race, and place of origin.

These rights are only limited by situations where health and safety risk are so serious it would amount to undue hardship, or where actions that appear to be discrimination are reasonable and justifiable. As illness falls under disability, negative treatment of employees who have, or are perceived to have, COVID-19 violates the Act and should only be permitted to the extent necessary for reasonable public health and safety concerns.

For example, employees should not be required to self-isolate unless it is based on reasonable grounds consistent with public health authority’s recommendations. Also, employment policies relating to employee’s absence must not negatively affect those that cannot work because they are required to self-isolate.

Employers should also accommodate employees that are required to stay home due to caregiving responsibilities as schools and childcare centres have been closed.

* The content of this article is intended to be general information only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Please consult a lawyer if you need legal advice.

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