The Ontario government’s recent actions to limit the COVID-19 spread in the province may be affecting your responsibilities as an employer. The declaration of a second provincial emergency under s 7.0.1 (1) of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act provided for the institution of several emergency measures in place until at least March 8, 2021, many of which impact employers in several important ways.

As varying rules continue to be introduced and enforced across the province, employers now have certain additional responsibilities related to ensuring the safety of employees and customers. A key change accompanying the new COVID-19 emergency measures affects which business may remain open and what protocols they are required to observe, depending on which level of restrictions apply in a given region. Businesses and employers should therefore stay abreast of these continually evolving changes to know what they should do to protect their employees during the pandemic, and whether they are permitted to open shop at all.   

For example, Ottawa is currently in a less restrictive orange zone, allowing for most businesses to open, with capacity limits and other safety protocols in place. In Toronto on the other hand, is still under a stay-at-home order, meaning many businesses are closed to the public.

COVID-19 Workplace Safety

Under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers are responsible to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect their workers. In the case of the current COVID-19 pandemic, employers are therefore required to keep the workplace, be it a grocery store, gas station, or care facility, safe for workers and patrons alike.

According to the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, the majority of businesses have been operating safely and responsibly. “But as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, we all need to step up and take additional measures to stop the spread. This includes increasing our inspections to look at everything workers do both while on the job and throughout the workday.”

As per government recommendations, many safety requirements established in the OHSA will need to be interpreted in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of the employer obligations set out in the OHSA include creating workplace health and safety policies and procedures. During the coronavirus pandemic, this requirement may include developing a COVID-19 workplace safety plan.

Another employer obligation may arise where a worker shows signs or symptoms of COVID-19. In such a case, an employer must take every reasonable precaution, given the circumstances, to protect the health and safety of other employees. This can include the requirement to undergo a risk assessment to determine which areas and workers may have been affected or contaminated, following which other safety measures may need to be introduced.   

Restrictions on Essential Businesses

The implementation of the emergency COVID-19 measures following Ontario’s lockdown has forced many employers to either embark on online or telework strategies or to temporarily close shop. In some health units in the province, only essential businesses are permitted to open to the public.

The various businesses that may remain open include supply chains, certain retailers, and services. However, just because a business is “essential” it does not mean employers have a free pass. O. Reg. 82/20 sets certain restrictions on essential businesses. For example, employers in the retail industry should be aware of newly established hour restrictions. In certain zones, shops may not be open earlier than 7:00 a.m. and must close no later than 8:00 p.m. Additionally, essential retailers are prohibited from delivering goods to customers outside of those prescribed hours.

Further yet, capacity limits apply. Certain retailers, such as discount and big-box retailers that sell alcohol, must limit store occupancy capacity to 25 percent.

What This Means for Employers

Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, employer responsibilities have been evolving, increasing, and transforming based on the rates of infection in various areas across Ontario. Therefore, it is highly advised that employers stay abreast of employment-related COVID-19 measures. This may include reviewing Ontario’s O. Reg. 82/20 rules, the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, and the provincial Stay-at-Home order.

Employers keeping their businesses operating during the lockdown should also discuss and share their COVID-19 safety plan with employees, unions, supervisors, contractors, and other relevant players. This is not only important for the safety of workers and other personnel, but it is crucial to have a safety plan during an increase in workplace inspections. A government inspector or compliance officer could ask employers for their COVID-19 safety plan at any time.

Finally, as emergency measures continue to emerge on the COVID-19 horizon, employers should stay up to date with government sites, legislation, and regulations to ensure they work within the limits of the law. In fact, contacting an employment lawyer may be the safest bet to ensure ongoing legal compliance during these uncertain times.

Contact Ottawa Employment Lawyers Tierney Stauffer LLP to Discuss Your Obligations as an Employer

Our employment law lawyers can advise on how best to protect your business and mitigate risks as an employer in the challenging landscape created by the pandemic. Contact Tierney Stauffer LLP in Ottawa & Eastern Ontario for experienced advice on the management of your business during COVID-19 and beyond. Call the firm at 1-888-799-8057 or contact them online to schedule a confidential consultation.


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