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In this last question in our ‘what you need to know – back to the office’ series, we are going to discuss what to do if an employee refuses to come back to the office to work for fear of contracting COVID?

As HR experts, we are following this question closely and looking to our peers in employment law to help provide legal advice. Under health and safety legislation, employees do have the right to refuse work if they have a reasonably held belief that the workplace poses a threat to their health and safety.

That said, fear of contracting COVID alone does not warrant an employee’s refusal to come to work. They must show that they believe there is a direct threat to their personal health and safety in the workplace.

In the case that an employee voices their refusal to come to the office to work, the employer should immediately assess the situation to determine if modifications or accommodations could be warranted. Consider what other measures could reasonably be extended without creating precedent or inequity to other employees.  For example, does the employee need to be in the office at all?  Are there other options that could be explored?

However, if the employee continues to refuse to come back into the office for health and safety concerns that could legitimately increase their risk of contracting COVID, this could warrant investigation by a Ministry inspector, which could also cause consequences such as business closure or fines.

But before getting to that point though, employers should ask themselves how to empathically support employees’ concerned while ensuring continuous business operations. There are many ways that an employer can try to support employees who harbour fears of contracting the virus without having to resort to discipline or unreasonably change the business context.

You have a choice as an employer. You can be tough or you can create an opportunity where reasonable adaptations could be considered.  This can help avoid complaints and fear.

  • Communicating well the safety standards that the employer has put in place will help employees see that safety is a priority.  This could also be demonstrated with a virtual office tour for example, before the return to work.
  • Allowing space for concerns can also help. As talked about in our earlier video, giving employees a forum for questions and concerns, and responding to/acting upon those concerns will show that you are listening.
  • We have said it before, and we’ll say it again – communicate, communicate, communicate.

As always we have provided a couple of interesting articles that tackle this subject. Links in the video details

Boreala Management are here to support you in thinking through the return to work policies that fit your organizational needs, so please reach out to us for more details. We can also point you in the direction of great legal advice to support with specific issues that may arise as you transition to bringing employees back to the office

Check out this article if you want more information on what to consider before bringing employees back to the office.