Alberta to lift COVID-19 restrictions
The Government of Alberta recently announced a staged plan to loosen public health restrictions that were implemented in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Stage One took effect February 8th and removed the restrictions exemption program as well as lifted restrictions on food and beverage at entertainment venues, and capacity limits for all venues, except those that have a large capacity, such as professional sporting arenas. Stage One advanced another notch on February 14th, 2022 by removing masking requirements for children 12 years old and younger, and youth of any age while in school.
Stage Two will take effect on March 1, 2022 at 12:00 a.m. and will remove a number of other restrictions, such as indoor masking, all remaining school requirements, youth screening for entertainment and sports, capacity limits on all large venues and entertainment venues, and limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings. In addition, the mandatory work from home order that is currently in effect will expire. This stage is contingent on hospitalizations trending downward. The province is also working towards a third stage, which does not have a date as of yet, where people will no longer be required to isolate if they have COVID-19, and COVID operational and outbreak protocols will be lifted in continuing care facilities.
Implications for employers
Over the last two years, employers have needed to be nimble in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the various implications it has had on the workplace. With restrictions being lifted, employers should be aware of the following considerations.
During the pandemic, workplaces around the country implemented various mandatory vaccination policies, work from home policies, and isolation policies. With restrictions being lifted, including the government requirements regarding isolation time periods, employers should review their workplace policies currently in force and ensure that they are striking an appropriate balance between ensuring a safe workplace and providing employees with the opportunity to work. In conducting this review, employers should take into account the following:
- Despite the restrictions exemption program being lifted in Alberta, employers are still able to enforce mandatory vaccination policies in the workplace, provided that accommodation is available for those employees with medical exemptions. However, employers may face mounting pressure to remove these policies and an influx of complaints if they fail to do so, including constructive dismissal claims, wrongful dismissal claims, human rights claims, and privacy complaints. As such, in the event that employers choose to remove mandatory vaccination policies, they still need to maintain a safe work environment and should, therefore, consider implementing a policy that requires employees who have been in close contact with a positive case or who have symptoms of COVID-19 to provide a negative test prior to attending at work.
- Employers may also have to consider going beyond the minimum standards set by the government with respect to isolation requirements. Stage Three of Alberta’s re-opening plan contemplates no isolation requirements for individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. However, employers are able to implement mandatory isolation policies, which require employees to isolate when they have tested positive, are a close contact to a positive case, or are displaying symptoms of COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status. In determining the appropriate isolation timelines, employers should consider the industry and the nature of the work being done, such as whether employees are providing care, if there is frequent close interaction with other individuals, and so on.
With the lifting of restrictions, some employers may need to hire more staff. When doing so, employers should review and revise current employment contracts to ensure that they include references to new workplace policies (i.e., vaccination status policies, work from home policies, mandatory isolation requirement policies, etc.) and provide for the possibility of temporary layoffs in the event there is a downturn in the economy due to another wave of COVID-19 or other unforeseen circumstances.
We encourage employers to reach out to a member of our Labour and Employment Group to discuss any of the above issues or to help develop or review workplace policies and employment contracts that make sense for their business.