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When Crisis Increases Risk Since the beginning of the crisis, we have been witnessing a spectacular collective effort marked by solidarity and the determination to ensure everyone’s health and safety. The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for all levels of government, for employers and for employees. Employers have had to adapt their methods by changing the way work is organized. The state of emergency caused by the crisis has quickly engendered additional risk exposure. At the same time, employees have generally been understanding and flexible regarding the measures announced by employers. Going forward, however, employee cooperation, force majeure, and health and safety challenges may no longer be sufficient to maintain the kind of flexibility employers and employees shared during the crisis. As a result, it is important to get back on track right away, taking only calculated risks and returning to the conventional legal framework that governs the employer-employee relationship. Short-Term Crisis Recovery: Anticipating Challenges and Minimizing Risk Well organized companies focused on the challenges of recovery will likely be capable of successfully commencing their recovery while keeping any associated risks linked with new measures to a minimum. The following are some suggestions on how to do so: It is essential to maintain, re-establish and/or preserve an effective, open channel of communication with employees. Workers will need assurance that their return to work is being properly managed and that their health and safety is a top priority for the company. Develop and implement health and safety measures for workers, or ensure that the measures already in place are adapted to the context of COVID-19. Employers have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of their workers and implement methods to identify, correct and control risks. Establish a policy for working at home (a subject recently discussed by our expert colleagues). Expect unusually high rates of absenteeism and work refusal situations and establish a plan to manage problem cases, keeping the rights and obligations of everyone involved in mind. Make sure these measures are applied in a consistent, unequivocal and uniform manner when it comes to your employees. Train managers on your organization’s key messages and positions in order to ensure that you are conveying a unified message. Coaching front-line managers will become even more important in the context of the recovery. Employers can evaluate the potential use of the Quebec government’s PACME program (which we have reviewed) as part of their recovery plan. The most significant challenge businesses will face in the medium-term (and probably in the long-term as well) is the very unstable economic situation and potentially declining employee cooperation. Though many are current focused on short-term recovery, it is crucial to begin thinking of ways to help our organizations manage the crisis in the medium-term. The economic instability that will characterize this period will also create opportunities. In order to seize them, it is essential for companies to be flexible and agile. Every organization must set a solid action plan in motion now so that their human resources can operate with the flexibility that the unstable economic situation will require. Our Labour and Employment team is prepared to support companies facing this immense challenge. We can help you. Despite the challenging circumstances, crisis can often reveal new opportunities.
Due to the ongoing pandemic and the resulting suspension of many company activities, certain employers are maintaining their operations by means of telework. Employers have had to swiftly redeploy their human resources to an extent that would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago. The redeployment of resources now working from home was done in a time of crisis, without the benefit of advanced planning, training, and strategic evaluation that usually accompanies changes of this magnitude. With no prediction yet available on how long the current crisis will last, employers must take steps now to ensure that the measures implemented to promote the continuity of their operations do not result in negative consequences, disputes or claims from their employees, clients or partners. In Quebec, thousands of employees are currently using new technological tools in a new environment (their homes), often without supervision. The boundary between private life and work has never been more blurred. The magnitude of the current context can artificially obscure the importance of employers adapting their operational methods and associated human resource policies to avoid the risks associated with working remotely. Employers must remember that legal action could be taken after the crisis to address any problematic situations in play now. It is important to act now in order to avoid exposure to significant liability in a post-Covid environment. To that end, we have identified the following four areas of concern. These have been highlighted so that employers can take any required measures to ensure that the telework performed is not only appropriate and safe, but also of sufficient quality to satisfy client and company needs: Concerns Related to Health and Safety while at Work The employer’s obligations in terms of health and safety and its responsibility to take preventive measures continue during this period of telework; The idea that the workplace can include the employee’s home must be taken into account, as well as associated workstation ergonomics Concerns Related to Psychological and Sexual Harassment The need to preserve civility while using new methods of communication; The feeling of familiarity engendered by these new methods of communication can be fertile ground for misconduct or a failure to engage in proper teamwork; The employer’s legal responsibility to prevent and address psychological and sexual harassment situations; Events that occur outside the usual workplace and are related to work; The application and adaptation of administrative policies and codes of conduct; Reviewing complaint and inquiry procedures so that they can take place outside of the usual workplace. Concerns related to the Act Respecting Labour Standards1 Respecting and modifying work schedules; Managing overtime; Costs associated with working from home; Concerns related to Privacy and Confidentiality The contractual performance of work in the employee's home; Transporting and storing work documents; Setting up a workspace to ensure that documents are kept confidential and ethical obligations are respected ; Our Labour and Employment team will be happy to help you implement best practices for telework. Act respecting labour standards, chapter N-1.1.
In order to best support our clients and business partners, our team is following developments related to COVID-19 very closely. We invite you to visit on our website the page that centralizes all of the tools and information produced by our professionals. There is a concern that simply laying off employees could lead to companies experiencing a major loss of expertise and skill. This expertise will be essential to rebuilding after the end of the crisis, a time that for many will be the greatest challenge in the history of their organization. Organizations recognize that employees have value over and above their skills. They have acquired an in-depth understanding of the company’s goals and operations. They have established a relationship of trust with the company, a network of contacts, and a certain degree of autonomy, to name only a few examples. These make all the difference. We are working with many employers to identify solutions designed to protect this invaluable asset during this unprecedented crisis. The latest government announcements, which include provisions for increased wage subsidies for some companies, are certainly a positive response to current concerns and realities. Other programs with solutions that might be of interest include: New Flexibility in the Federal Work-Sharing Program The federal government has recently established measures to increase the flexibility of the Work-Sharing program (“WS”), which has been the subject of many questions from both employers and employees. Considering the frequent changes made to various government programs, it is possible that by the time you read this, some information may no longer be up to date. We therefore invite you to visit the Employment and Social Development Canada1 (“ESDC”) website or consult our labour and employment law professionals for more information. What is the Work-Sharing program (“WS”)? The goal of the program is to allow employers to keep all of their workers by reducing hours rather than laying off part of their workforce. This program may be a good option for employers who are facing a decrease in their normal level of operations due to COVID-19, but who still have some work for their employees in a reduced capacity. During the program’s implementation period, available work is redistributed equally among employees in one or more work units. The employer submits an application and fills out the form outlining the agreement between the employer, the affected employees and their representative, through which the employees voluntarily accept a reduction in their work hours and the sharing of available work. In order to compensate for this reduction in income, the program allows workers who are part of the agreement to receive employment insurance benefits. Under the Employment Insurance Regulations2, remuneration received for a given week of work-sharing is not deducted from the benefits payable under the Employment Insurance Act3. For companies that are directly or indirectly affected by the decline in business due to the current situation, the program’s duration is a minimum of six weeks and a maximum of 76 weeks. The reduction in employees’ regular work schedules must be between a minimum of 10% and a maximum of 60% on average during the period of the agreement. We invite you to visit the ESDC website or consult with our professionals to obtain more information about the eligibility criteria and the general requirements of the program. What Are the New Measures Related to COVID-19? On March 25, due to the downturn caused by COVID-19, the federal government updated its temporary special measures regarding the WS program, including the following, which: Reduce the requirements associated with preparing the application and the attachments. Starting now and until further notice, employers are no longer required to submit: The recovery plan, Attachment B, which used to be required, has been removed and replaced with a single line in the text of the application; Sales and/or production data from the last two years; Broaden program eligibility to include companies that have only been operating for a year, instead of the usual two years; Remove the required waiting period in between WS applications. How to Submit an Application and the Expected Processing Times Following the recent changes made to the program, there is now a simplified way to submit the application. Employers must fill out the following forms, which have been revised by the federal government: Revised form: Application for a Work-Sharing Agreement (EMP5100) Form - Attachment A (revised): Work-Sharing Unit (EMP5101) For businesses located in Quebec, the application must be sent to the following email address: [email protected] As of the date this bulletin was written, the ESDC website that provides information on the special measures implemented due to COVID-19 does not specify the amount of time it will take to process applications. However, it does indicate that employers are now asked to submit their applications 10 calendar days before the requested program start date, and that Service Canada will endeavour to reduce processing time to 10 calendar days. Before COVID-19, employers had to send their Work-Sharing application (and the supporting documents) 30 calendar days before the requested start date. Due to the major increase in applications, the federal government now has nine (9) processing centres in Canada for the purpose of processing WS applications and has the additional capacity to further support employers who have questions. A new email address has been created for the purpose of handling requests for information about the WS program: [email protected] Conclusion Considering the constant changes, we invite you to consult our labour and employment law professionals to ensure that your decisions are in conformity with the various government programs. The federal government may further increase the flexibility of the program’s conditions and wait times. If necessary, we will keep you informed of any changes to the program with future updates. It is also important to note that there are other kinds of programs that could be of interest in the current situation, such as the Supplemental Unemployment Benefit Program, which allows employers to increase their employees’ weekly earnings when they are unemployed due to a temporary stoppage of work or quarantine. If the conditions are met and the plan is registered with Service Canada, the amounts paid by the employer are not deducted from employees’ employment insurance benefits4. The Lavery team is available to help you implement measures and determine the best way to endure this crisis, protect your organization and prepare to return to normal. See also https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/corporate/notices/coronavirus.html#h4.01. Employment Insurance Regulations, DORS/96-332, subsection 47(1) and section 49. Employment Insurance Act, S.C. 1996, c. 23. Employment Insurance Regulations, supra note 1, subsection 37(1).