UPDATED: Coronavirus – Considerations for Employees

The world continues to be in the grips of its latest pandemic with the discovery of the Wuhan Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), more commonly referred to now as COVID-19. We had originally posted an article Coronavirus: Considerations for Employees on February 4, 2020, however as we have all seen, information available is rapidly evolving, and we wanted to provide an update and reiterate some important considerations from that article below.

The origins of this new virus likely date back to December 2019, the World Health Organization declared on January 30, 2020 that this outbreak is a “global health emergency” and a “pandemic” on March 11, 2020. The number of deaths and individuals infected changes daily and we now know that this pandemic is running at a much faster rate and is more deadly than the SARS virus in 2002/2003.

While most people are concerned about this virus as it relates to personal health, it is also a business issue as it relates to the health, safety and productivity of employees. If we think back to lessons learned from other somewhat recent health scares, the SARS and the H1N1 (bird flu) viruses in particular, organizations should assess the following considerations for employees:

  • Benefit Continuation During Layoffs or Reduced Hours – As companies contemplate the need for temporary or long-term layoffs or reductions in working hours, they are also looking at options available for benefit continuation, when desired. Typically these provisions are defined in the insurer contract but we have seen many insurers relaxing these provisions and providing more flexibility to plan sponsors. As well, insurers are also evaluating ways to reduce the plan administration requirements related to layoffs. Each situation is different and so is each insurer so please check the terms of your insurer contract or contact us for assistance.
  • Disability Coverage – Employees would be eligible for disability coverage if they are unable to work after contracting this virus or any other infectious disease, both under short and long term disability contracts. However, we note that coverage has historically not been available if an employee is able to work but has been quarantined due to exposure to an infectious disease. Organizations need to assess whether an employee would be eligible for some other form of approved leave of absence (paid or unpaid) to either self-quarantine, care for themselves or potentially to care for other family members. In particular, organizations need to assess opportunities available through many of the programs being offered by the federal and provincial governments (changing almost daily). Organizations should also consider whether coverage for all other employee benefits would continue during any absence and confirm that coverage with their group insurance carrier based on the terms of their insurer contract and any other accommodations that may have been announced by that insurer. For those organizations that do not offer short term disability benefits, the Federal Employment Insurance (EI) program provides sickness benefits to employees unable to work because of sickness, injury, or quarantine. Note that if an employee is quarantined outside Canada they may not qualify so organizations should direct employees to EI for clarification and eligibility.
  • Absence Management – The same legal considerations that apply to employees who are unable to work due to illness also apply to employees who fall ill or who self-quarantine as a result of potential exposure to COVID-19. These legal considerations include employment standards, human rights, occupational health and safety, workers compensation and privacy legislation. As well, provisions contained within Collective Agreements may apply, including the need to develop a response in consultation with the Union. Many proactive organizations have a policy that requires any impacted employees to stay home and they may also provide alternative work arrangements (i.e., work from home) if desired. In general, we have seen a desire by many plan sponsors, wherever feasible, to be accommodating, likely because of an anticipation of a return to normal business down the road in what was, before the pandemic, a very tight labour market.
  • Government Support of Individuals / Support for Businesses – As the situation continues to evolve, Governments are announcing, almost daily, various programs to help individuals and businesses. Here are some sites to stay informed:
    Canada’s Economic Response Plan
    General Information about COVID-19 in Canada
    Employment Insurance benefits and leave including information about impacts of COVID-19

Some of the issues identified above can have some legal or labour relations implications, so we recommend that organizations consult, as needed, with their independent legal counsel. As well, you may wish to get confirmation from your group insurance carrier for any specific situations where you believe coverage may be in doubt. We would be pleased to discuss your specific situation with you to identify the best strategy with respect to your employee benefits and retirement programs. Should you have any questions on the above, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a member of your ZLC service team.

By Dan Eisner and Fab Biagini

This information is designed to educate and inform you of strategies and products currently available. As each individual’s circumstances differ, it is important to review the suitability of these concepts for your particular needs with a qualified advisor.

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