Returning to work post COVID-19

With most provinces moving into Phase 2 of re-opening, organizations are planning for the return of their employees and creating guidelines for a new normal. Some organizations had to drastically reduce or completely stop operations, while others were able to continue business with modifications like having employees working primarily from home.

Regardless of the temporary work arounds, employers are now dealing with the issues that are part of bringing employees back to the workplace ranging from administrative work to ensuring their workplace safe to managing the fears employees may have around COVID-19 in the workplace.

Employee status changes

Your employees could be in multiple different status groups, including layoff, working from home, working on-site, on lay-off, or still employed but not receiving any hours or compensation. Status changes you need to action include layoff recalls, scheduling hourly employees that have not been paid, and anyone off due to a COVID-related illness or quarantine leave. Status changes must follow provincial legislation and any collective bargaining agreements that your organization operates under. Most provinces have extended the normal maximum layoff period in response to the pandemic, so consult your jurisdiction for the changes made and any specific procedural recall requirements.

Many employers are using the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) in order to bring back employees. This program provides a 75% wage subsidy to eligible employers for up to 12 weeks and is retroactive to March 15, 2020. Eligible employers include: private corporations, non-profit organizations, and registered charities that have experienced reduction in revenue of over 30%.

If you’re using the CEWS, ensure there is no overlap with the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB). Individuals don’t qualify for the CERB if their employer is receiving the CEWS. It’s your responsibility to ensure that employees who are returning to work:

  • Are aware that you’ve applied for the wage subsidy
  • The effective date of the subsidy
  • Understand it will be their responsibility to refund any CERB benefits they receive beyond that date

Employees who return to work and have a monthly income of less than $1,000 may still be eligible to receive the CERB. This allowance will help organizations that want to slowly resume their business, but don’t yet have the revenue to support their employees full-time.

Recalling employees

Organizations may find themselves struggling to bring employees in a certain income bracket back to work. Some of these employees may have found the CERB to be sufficient over the short term. We don’t recommend employers assume that’s the case. It’s best to have an open conversation with employees to find out of any of the following could be factors:

  • Do they have fears about contracting COVID-19 in the workplace or on public transit?
  • Are they having trouble finding child care?
  • Are they feeling resentful about being laid off in the first place and aren’t sure they’ll still fit in the workplace?

We recommend asking employees to meet with a designate – someone in HR or a manager – to find out what their personal situation is and give them an opportunity to disclose any issues that could present a challenge for their return to work.

Employees have a duty to release enough information for organizations to assess the situation. Specific questions can be asked to ensure you have a full understanding. However, employees aren’t required to disclose detailed health information. An HR professional can provide guidance on how to obtain specific information you need to plan for accommodation, without overstepping privacy boundaries.

Rules around recalls are fairly clear:

  • If an employer recalls an employee who was laid-off, the employee is obligated to return to work as requested, and if they don’t, the record of employment (ROE) should be adjusted.
  • Employers need to ensure employees understand the impact of their refusal. An employee who refuses to return to work risks their benefits plan coverage because their refusal to return may be deemed to be a resignation.
  • An employer should not hire new employees with the same skill set to do the same job as employees who are currently laid off from that job.
  • As employee situations can change, make sure the reason for the employee’s departure is accurately reported on the ROE.


It’s critical to plan for accommodations for returning employees – especially those who are vulnerable including: those who are over age 70, those with a compromised immune system or an underlying medical condition.

Additionally, although schools and daycares are slowly reopening, they have capacity limits that will reduce availability for some time. In addition, most day programming for seniors and adults with intellectual disabilities is also on pause. Accommodation for family care should be considered as important as accommodation based on health concerns. 

Examples of accommodation include:

  • Reassigning employees to a position or duties that don’t include dealing with the public
  • Allowing employees to work from home
  • Allowing employees to work flexible hours
  • Providing a more private on-site location where the employee can work

Safe workplace

When planning for a safe workplace, it’s important to take into consideration employees’ rights. They have the right to: 

  • Participate in the identification and resolution of workplace dangers
  • Be aware of workplace hazards
  • Refuse unsafe work 

Involve your health and safety committee in the risk assessment and planning. Share the final plan with your team to ensure employees understand their responsibility in ensuring safety as well as what you have done to ensure a safe work environment.

There are general guidelines for workplaces, and some more specific recommendations for sectors that have precise needs. At a minimum, organizations should develop a plan that addresses distancing, disinfecting, screening, PPE, and accountability.  Depending on your jurisdiction, you may be able to find helpful advice from your Occupational Health and Safety agency or other sector-specific associations.  The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety is a great resource and offers tip sheets for 15 different industries. 

Deanna Lanoway is the Vice President of Human Resource Consulting at People First HR Services.