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Coronavirus may be a threat to your workplace, but so are fear and discrimination

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From the moment that the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern,” media and public attention worldwide has been focused on images of empty cities in China, Italy and beyond, and reports of tens of millions of citizens on lockdown as national governments try to stem the outbreak. A recent pandemic declaration has only heightened concerns that this crisis will be protracted and highly disruptive.

Now more than ever, employers across Canada are concerned over how the international health crisis could impact their workplaces. Should they be taking immediate action on the human resources front? The reality is that risk levels from the coronavirus—symptoms of which can include fever, cough, pneumonia and difficulty breathing—are growing fast in this country and employers need to respond.

That means having a plan in place to maintain operations and manage the situation if one or more employees demonstrate coronavirus-related symptoms.

Until now, a simple first step was to suspend business travel to virtually any city the infection had touched. But with travel to most affected areas having already been restricted—and the federal government now advising against any unnecessary foreign travel—that’s no longer a decision most business leaders need to make.

So, what can they do? Employers should have a policy in place that requires employees to stay at home if they display coronavirus-related symptoms. Now, there is a likelihood that an individual will present symptoms similar to coronavirus that are actually the common cold or the seasonal flu, but advising rest and recovery away from the workplace is a precaution worth taking given the circumstances. As such, employees should be allowed to work from home where possible. It is also reasonable to ask employees to display coronavirus-like symptoms to provide medical documentation confirming they either don’t have the illness or are no longer contagious, before returning to work.

Given the regional origins of coronavirus, we’ve seen a trend emerge of suspicion, harassment and even discrimination against individuals from certain cultural backgrounds—in particular Chinese-Canadians, due to the apparent origins of the illness in China’s Hubei province—across some work environments. Other nationalities may be added to the list as the virus spreads. Some organizations have reported incidents of employees not wanting to sit near colleagues with cultural ties to a coronavirus hotspot.

Now is the time to remind employees of your organization’s policies against workplace harassment and discrimination. Provincial human rights codes prohibit discrimination on various grounds, including place of origin, race, and ethnicity. While fear over the spread of any newly-discovered, airborne virus is understandable—especially when containment in most countries has not yet been achieved—stereotyping and discrimination are not acceptable. Employers are well-advised to make clear their commitment to complying with requirements to keep their workplace free from harassment, which in certain jurisdictions such as Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Saskatchewan, is mandated under health and safety legislation.

In addition, employers must be careful not to single out employees of a specific race, nationality or ethnic background for questioning over their recent travels or health status. Those questions must be directed across your entire workforce, or to no one at all.

Last point: communicate with your employees, share the facts about the illness and remind them that although the likelihood of coronavirus bearing down on their workplace is growing, preparation, not panic, is the best way to address this health crisis.

 

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