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Hidden obligations for employers during COVID-19

by Darcy Michaud
in Human Resources

The COVID-19 pandemic has literally changed the way we live and work. For many municipal employees, it is a case of changing where they work. Working from home has become the new normal. It is no longer a case of preference or a workplace perk. Employees are not only be asked to work from home, they are being directed to stay home, even when they are not working. This has been going on for some time and, for most municipalities across Canada, self-isolation and social distancing will be an expectation for weeks or months to come.

The pandemic is negatively affecting employees. And, just as the employer has an obligation to ensure an employee has a proper workspace at home, they have the same obligation to ensure the workplace is psychologically and mentally safe as well.

Alcohol at Home

People are coming up with many ways to cope with being isolated at home during this pandemic. Many coping mechanisms are healthy, for both the body and the mind. In other cases, however, statistics show that many people are turning to alcohol as a way to fight through the repetitious days.

Digital Connections book cover

There should be a concern by employers for the well-being of their employees. But if your employees are working from home, your concern becomes an obligation.

In these times, it is critical for employers to re-train and re-enforce company drug and alcohol policies. Workplace policies still apply, even for remote workplaces.

Be sure to communicate with employees regularly. Don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of drug and/or alcohol abuse with your employees. Educate your employees, provide contact information for their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and other applicable resources and supports.

Domestic Violence

Can you imagine being a victim of domestic violence in a time when you are being directed to stay home? It is not a pleasant thought; rather, it is terrifying to think that there are people, potentially your employee, that are living that nightmare right now. That is why we need to talk about it.

The statistics describe a real problem that has the potential to get even worse. If one in 10 women are very or extremely concerned about domestic violence at home, is it possible that one of these women may be your employee or coworker?

Communication and regular contact is critical. Every time you reach out to your employees, it is an opportunity for someone to ask for help or for you to identify someone that may need help.
It is an obligation of the employer to be aware of potential hazards in the workplace, and that includes domestic violence for employees working from home. Develop protocols around regular work check-ins with the employee, with the expectation of privacy at the home. It is right and diligent to look for signs of domestic violence, because you are required to identify potential hazards in the workplace. Be sure that this is all in writing and shared with your employees. It will help an employee in need of a safe place or a safe time to talk to justify a requirement made by the employer if they can point to an email or direction. Provide your employees with that opportunity, without having to be asked.

Depend on One Another

These are not normal times. To think that the usual hazards that most often apply to the workplace or to your employees are all you need to prepare for in order to meet your obligations under your applicable code or act is simply irresponsible. That said, I would like to think that employers don’t need to cite legislation as the impetus for employers and employees looking out for one another. I would like to think that we have learned something from enduring through this terrible pandemic … that our health and safety is ultimately dependent on each other.  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in another of Darcy’s articles: Creating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.


Darcy Michaud has been practising HR for 20 years, several of those serving as the Director of HR for the County of Huron. Darcy successfully started his own HR consulting firm, HRprimed.

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