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It’s exciting to think we could soon have many of BC’s pandemic restrictions lifted with the reduction of COVID infections and increase in vaccination rates. For many employers, this means a potential return to the office for their employees. This may create mixed feelings for employees – some have found working from home isolating and/or difficult to focus with too many distractions. Others have found the increased flexibility of working at home has been a bonus.

A recent survey* showed that there are many reasons why employees would like to continue to work from home. Here are a few:

  • No commuting
  • Flexible hours
  • Ability to dress casually
  • Ability to do small household tasks while working
  • Ability to socially distance
  • Spending more time with family/household members
  • More autonomy with work
  • Increased productivity

Many workplaces are working to provide flexible schedules that allow employees to work part of the week at home, with some days in the office. Most employees recognize the value of in-person meetings, one-on-one conversations and the casual connections that happen more easily in an office, and are open to returning at least part of the time. But what happens when employees are hesitant to return? How will you handle the work environment if not every employee has been vaccinated? What happens when masks are no longer mandatory?

Unfortunately, we can’t mandate or require every employee to receive a vaccination unless there are significant potential health and safety risks of infection in the work environment (e.g. hospitals). In order to ensure a safe workplace, employers can keep track of who has and who hasn’t been vaccinated as part of their health and safety protocols. However, this information must be kept confidential and should only be used in the event of a transmission or exposure where potential risk to an unvaccinated employee may exist. It is okay to positively promote information about the benefits of vaccines, and encourage all employees to get vaccinated. You can also consider incentivizing employees to get their shot; a day off with pay as an example.

What happens if one unvaccinated employee returns to the office? It may be possible to set up the unvaccinated employee in a separate area of the office with physical distancing space and barriers around their work area. You can maintain a policy that any time any employee leaves their personal workspace, they are required to wear masks in common areas. You can also rotate schedules so there are only a certain number of employees in the office at any given time, ensuring that an unvaccinated employee and an immune compromised employee are on different schedules.

It is important to keep in mind that you will need to avoid any actions that may appear punitive in nature or that unfairly target an unvaccinated individual for their personal choice, as it may be a discriminatory action. For instance, an employee may have an undisclosed medical condition or there may be religious reasons for why they have not been vaccinated. Disclosing this medical condition (unvaccinated) to the rest of your team would be a violation of their privacy.

If it’s possible, engage the unvaccinated employee in a discussion about how they might respond or resolve the safety concerns of their co-workers. This will create joint accountability with the individual to help ensure everyone on the team enjoys a safe, comfortable workplace, and to emphasize that this is an important employer responsibility to all their employees.

Removal of mandatory mask requirements is going to be trickier as public health measures change and wearing masks becomes optional. When masks are no longer mandatory, employers can still manage their work environment to prioritize the health and well-being of all employees. Partner with your health and safety representative or committee to establish guidelines that work for everyone. Talk with your team to determine the best protocols for your workplace. When employees have a voice and participate in these types of decisions, they are more likely to support the protocols.

If you have any specific questions or concerns, we are here to help you continue to navigate this new normal.

* – American Survey (January 2021)

DISCLAIMER The content is provided as general information on these topics and may not apply to your particular facts or circumstances. Therefore, before taking any action based or relying on the content of this article, please reach out to us for individualized advice and assistance. This content is not meant to be a substitute for specific legal advice from a qualified legal professional. Please do not rely solely upon this information for making decisions regarding employees in your workplace.