Ontario and Quebec both moved into provincewide lockdowns before the start of 2021 to minimize transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
Thousands of people in Ontario and Quebec tested positive for COVID-19 per day during the pandemic’s second wave. These record-high, single-day case numbers spurred public health officers in each province to action in December 2020. Ontario issued a stay-at-home order, while Quebec introduced a night curfew to curb community spread.
As a result, daily case numbers in both provinces decreased. For this reason, Ontario and Quebec governments began to ease COVID-19 restrictions as of February. The phased reopening of the economy was to start in four regions of Ontario where transmission of COVID-19 was lowest, reported the National Post. But there has been some opposition to easing restrictions in some regions of Ontario, particularly given fears over COVID-19 variants in Toronto and Peel, Ontario, according to Global News. In Quebec, the slight easing of restrictions has included allowing swimming pools and arenas to partially reopen for family bubbles and individual activities but not for organized activities such as hockey, reported the Montreal Gazette.
Health officials reiterated they will reimpose restrictions if cases—especially the new variants of the novel coronavirus—spike.
“This is not a reopening or a ‘return to normal,’ ” said Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer. “We must continue to limit close contact to our immediate households and stay at home except for essential reasons.”
Employees in both provinces have reverted to working from home during the winter months except for workers who must be physically present in the office, employment lawyers from Ontario and Quebec said.
“Companies in Canada that still don’t have a telework policy should make sure to work on it now,” noted Geneviève Lord, human resources manager of people and culture at Pvisio, an HR consultancy in Montreal. “This reality is here to stay when the company’s activities allow it.”
Ontario’s Stay-at-Home Update
Ontario’s stay-at-home order restricts people from leaving their home for work purposes unless the nature of their work requires them to be onsite, explained Hilary Page, a lawyer with SpringLaw in Toronto. If a business remains open, employers should ensure everyone stays safe and in compliance with the law.
“Employers should also be following all public health advice applicable to their industry,” she added. “These measures should be included in their COVID-19 safety plans. Typically, this is going to include capacity limits to ensure physical distancing, mandatory masking, and extra cleaning and disinfecting.”
Employers at businesses open in Ontario must require employees and visitors to wear a mask indoors, Page continued.
“The guidance from the Ontario government is that bandanas and scarves are insufficient,” Page said. “Masks need to cover the mouth, nose and chin.”
Anyone going into a workplace in Ontario also needs to be screened daily before they enter, including workers and visitors. Ontario updated its mandatory COVID-19 screening tool in January 2021 to include a more detailed list of questions, explained Justin P’ng, a lawyer at Fasken in Toronto.
“The updated screening tool requires employers to keep records of the results to support contact tracing efforts,” he added. “Employers must administer the screening tool to workers required to travel to multiple locations as part of their work responsibilities.”
Quebec’s Curfew Orders
In Quebec, workers who do not provide priority services—such as financial services, health care, legal services, manufacturing and retail—should stay home and telework if possible, explained Gary Rosen, an attorney with Miller Thomson in Montreal.
Quebec became the first province in Canada to impose a curfew in response to soaring COVID-19 infections. Currently, the curfew is in effect from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. in the Montreal metropolitan area and the Quebec City region, which has 90 percent of Quebec’s population, Rosen explained.
Nonessential businesses must close before 8 p.m. to allow employees to return home, Lord added.
Employees who must travel to and from work after Quebec’s mandated curfew must have the appropriate documentation on company letterhead in French, Rosen noted. Employers should ensure the Employer Attestation for Curfew Travel letter details the employee can work outside his or her home.
Rosen advised companies in Quebec to implement measures from the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail or CNESST, Quebec’s workers’ compensation board.
“Make sure to designate a senior manager and core team to stay on top of health and safety measures and communicate that with employees,” Rosen continued. “Companies should consider regularly testing employees for COVID if they visit the facility often.”
How COVID-19 Has Changed HR
The 2020s have been a busy time for HR in Canada so far, Page commented. “HR has had to deal with a lot of pivoting with various shutdowns, shifts to working from home, leaves and layoffs.”
HR should pay close attention to the mental health impact of COVID-19, Rosen noted. “HR’s challenge in 2021 is to manage employee engagement and morale, which is only decreasing as the lockdown continues.”
Lord added that HR is learning how to work with employers and employees at a distance, as they need to find new ways to build teamwork, motivate staff and preserve the bond of belonging to a company.
“Over the past year, HR professionals have essentially been expected to become pandemic experts,” P’ng concluded. “From employee screening to contact tracing, the role of HR has evolved into a special kind of essential front-line position in the workplace.”
Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.