Canada: COVID-19 Screening Is Mandatory in Ontario Workplaces

By Catherine Skrzypinski November 10, 2020
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Toronto skyline

​As Canada's most populous province grapples with a second wave of the coronavirus, employers in Ontario now must issue screening questions to workers and essential visitors about COVID-19 before they come into the office.

The Ontario government has enacted a mandatory COVID-19 screening tool for organizations and businesses effective Sept. 26. The short questionnaire covers whether a person has COVID-19 symptoms, has had contact with someone with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19, or has traveled outside of Canada in the past 14 days.

If the worker or essential visitor answers "yes" to any questions, he or she should go home to self-isolate and contact his or her health care provider for a COVID-19 test, said Justin P'ng, an attorney with Fasken in Toronto.

"The screening tool's purpose is to enhance public health protection to avoid another lockdown, and to impose consistency and clarity at all workplaces in Ontario, as COVID-19 guidelines are constantly changing," P'ng added.

The screening also ensures employers are providing safe workplaces in accordance with their duties under Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act, said Hilary Page, an attorney with SpringLaw in Toronto. The screening should be administered every day before staff, students, contractors and volunteers enter the workplace. Essential visitors, such as delivery and maintenance workers, should also be screened prior to arrival.

Adjusting to Remote Work

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 82 percent of Canadian employees worked primarily at an office, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Canada. Currently, around 27 percent of employees work onsite in Canada. Only 1 in 5 Canadian employees said they want to go back to the office full time while the pandemic continues. 

The PwC workforce survey revealed that employees in Ontario prefer remote work because of long commutes in the Toronto area and elevated COVID-19 rates in the province. As of Nov. 10, the Ontario government has reported more than 85,000 total cases of COVID-19.

Of all Canadians, Ontarians are the least comfortable about returning to the workplace over the next few months, according to the survey.

Implementing the Screening Tool

While there is no specific guidance on how employers should implement the screening tool in Ontario, legal experts say businesses and organizations can consult with a health and safety committee or representative to adhere to a safe workplace plan.  

Implementation could include an in-person screening process at an entrance to the workplace or filling out an online app or an online questionnaire, noted George Vassos, an attorney with Littler in Toronto.

"Employers can ask their employees to go through the screening tool and submit their results to them by e-mail prior to coming into the office that day," Page explained. "Employers could also call employees prior to them coming into the office and go through the questions verbally."

P'ng stated that businesses in Ontario could administer the screening tool process in the following ways:

  • Online survey. This option is environmentally friendly and the easiest to automate. People have the option to change their answers on the survey over subsequent days.
  • Oral survey. While many businesses may choose to ask people the screening tool questions while they enter an office building, there could be privacy concerns. Businesses must take steps to protect employees.
  • Paper survey. Even though printed documentation of the screening tool can create a paper trail, this option is less convenient to automate and streamline.

Takeaways for Employers and HR

Employers and HR professionals in Ontario should keep a record of who is in the office each day to prove compliance to a government authority, legal experts say.

"This record could be as elaborate as a completed questionnaire for each employee for each day, or as minimal as a checklist showing that the employee ran through and passed the screening that day," Page said.

HR can also keep track of employees working in the office, she added. They can verify that employees answer the screening questions each day before coming in.

In Canada, there's currently no requirement as to how long employers and HR should maintain documents relating to the screening tool, but most should hold onto this paperwork for between six months to two years, P'ng said. Employers in Ontario are generally required to keep employee records for three years.

Vassos noted some additional guidelines on how HR can facilitate the screening tool process in Ontario:

  • Identify additional questions employers should ask beyond mandatory screening questions.
  • Prepare and circulate communications to workers and essential visitors about mandatory screening questions.
  • Review applicable policies—including privacy and document retention—to make sure mandatory screening is consistent with other workplace policies.
  • Place a visible sign notifying workers and essential visitors where mandatory screening will occur.
  • Consider whether to coordinate with other departments outside the company. For example, employers may need to contact a property manager, as the manager may have his or her own set of rules.

HR professionals are "front and center in applying the screening tool," P'ng concluded. "This is another tool in their health and safety toolbox."

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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