The world is in the grips of its latest pandemic with the recent discovery of the Wuhan Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), more commonly referred to as the Coronavirus. The origins of this new virus likely date back to December 2019 and the World Health Organization declared on January 30, 2020 that this outbreak is a “global health emergency”. The number of deaths and individuals infected changes daily but we do know that this latest pandemic is running at a much faster rate than the SARS virus in 2002/2003. At this time it is hard to tell whether the virus is spreading as fast as the facts and rumours related to the virus.
While most people are concerned about this virus as it relates to their own personal health, it is also a business issue as it relates to the health and productivity of employees. If we think back to lessons learned from other somewhat recent health scares, SARS and the H1N1 (bird flu) viruses in particular, organizations should assess the following considerations for employees:
- 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 Coronavirus. 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.
- 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. 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. 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.
- Vaccines – No specific treatment (i.e., vaccine) has yet been developed for the Coronavirus but organizations should confirm whether any medical treatment would be covered, once available. Your coverage could also be impacted by whether any medication is preventative or whether the medication is developed to treat the complications after the virus has been contracted. Generally, vaccines are not eligible under most Extended Health care plans; however, an increasing number of plans have added coverage in recent years. Coverage could be added, if desired, for a restricted number of vaccines.
- Emergency Medical – Your Extended Health plan’s out-of-country emergency coverage should cover you in the same manner for Coronavirus as any other medical emergency. During an outbreak of an epidemic disease, group insurance contracts have historically not had any restrictions against travelling to an area with an advisory. You should continue to have access to all eligible medical expenses and global medical assistance services as a result of a medical emergency. That said, we recommend that anyone travelling to areas with a Travel Advisory contact their insurance provider to understand any limitations or restrictions that may apply.
- Travel Advisories – Given that the risks relating to the Coronavirus are still changing rapidly, organizations would be wise to regularly check travel advisories and assess the risks related to any business and personal travel plans for their employees. These advisories will provide guidance for different situations: (1) precautions to take prior to travelling; (2) what to do if you are already in an area and then it becomes infected; and (3) how to respond if the area you travelled to is confirmed as infected after you return. The Government of Canada (https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories) is widely accepted as a very reliable source of travel advisories for Canadians but organizations could also consult other sources, including the World Health Organization.
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 contact me or a member of our team.
ZLC Financial is one of the fastest growing advisors for employee benefits programs in Vancouver and we are fortunate to have the best people, resources and clients. We provide value to you by leveraging one of the most skilled benefits teams – collectively almost 350 years of experience within our team of 18 employee benefits specialists. We have been working with businesses ranging from 3 to over 70,000 plan members for the past 35 years.
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.