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Managing a pandemic workforce: The rules employers need to know

As the pandemic continues to change the way in which companies and their employees work, employers are facing new sets of questions and challenges. 

To help local business owners understand the key issues around remote work, returning to the office and temporary layoffs, OBJ and sponsor Emond Harnden LLP recently teamed up to explore the rules employers need to know to successfully manage their workforce through a pandemic. 

This is an edited transcript of a discussion between Jock Climie, partner at Emond Harnden LLP and OBJ publisher Michael Curran. To hear the full interview, please watch the video above. Prefer an audio version of this podcast? Listen to it on SoundCloud or Spotify

CURRAN: Can employers require employees to return to the office?

CLIMIE: You are entitled to have your employees come into work unless there is a statutory, contractual or policy reason that says you can’t. Employers need to keep in mind that an employee can’t say “We’re in a pandemic, I don’t want to come back to work, you need to pay me to sit at home.” That’s not how it works, and we have a lot of employers struggling to respond to employees in this situation. There are tools at your disposal to ensure your business runs smoothly and it’s important to educate yourself on what you can and cannot do because if you take a wrong step you could be exposing yourself to quite a bit of liability. 

CURRAN: What should employers think about from a legal perspective when we talk about “work from anywhere?”

CLIMIE: There are very good reasons employers should be implementing policies around working from home. Let’s not have any surprises and ensure everyone is on the same page about what’s expected of them. Employers should also be very cognizant of where their employees are working from. They need to consider: Do you need this employee to come into the office on a whim? Do they have the proper equipment to get the job done? What are you doing to ensure their work situation is safe and appropriate? Employers need to be aware of the rules and regulations that apply when employees cross borders to work. 

CURRAN: What do employers need to know about temporary layoffs?

CLIMIE: I urge employers to sit down and talk to employees before they jump immediately to the idea of temporary layoffs. If you can, experiment with work sharing, pay cuts and reduced hours. If those don’t work, employers do have the option to furlough employees until there is enough work for them. One thing to keep in mind however is there is a difference between sending someone home for 13 weeks versus 35 weeks. Employers need to be aware of when it moves from temporary to a permanent layoff and what that means for both them and the employee in question.