Frequently Asked Questions by Employers Relating to COVID-19

Frequently Asked Questions by Employers Relating to COVID-19

By Justin Barrie

As of March 12, 2020, Alberta has 19 confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19. The Government of Alberta's position remains that the risk relating to the virus is presently low, though it is acknowledged that evolving circumstances may require that designation to be changed. [1] Questions by employees and employers alike are mounting with regard to COVID-19 and how it may affect persons at the workplace.

While the coronavirus is novel, the laws governing the employment relationship are not. It remains the case that employment matters continue to be governed by the usual legislation, including the Alberta Employment Standards Code, Labour Relations Code, Occupational Health and Safety Act, and the Alberta Human Rights Act. While the unique circumstances of COVID-19 may be relevant in how existing provisions will be applied, it is not the case that the application of these laws will be applied markedly different than would normally be expected. Employment contracts, policies, and collective agreements will also impact the analysis as to how an employer can respond to the difficulties brought by COVID-19.

To assist employers in addressing operational concerns and answering queries brought forward by their employees, Neuman Thompson offers answers to these frequently asked questions (FAQs). For further detail or to have other questions addressed, do not hesitate to contact us.

1. Can I prevent an employee from travelling to certain countries on their vacation?

No. In the absence of an agreement with the employee to the contrary, an employee is generally entitled to utilize their vacation time as they see fit to do so. However, several cautions should be brought to these employees' attention prior to their anticipated departure:

  • The Government of Canada has issued travel advisories specific to COVID-19. As at March 10, 2020, travel notices exist for China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Iran, Japan, Italy, Singapore, South Korea and Spain. [2]
  • Upon return from countries with COVID-19 advisories, an employer may be entitled to require the employee to quarantine themselves for a period of time, or the employee may be required to observe any government-mandated quarantine periods.
  • Regarding compensation during quarantine/isolation periods following travel:
    • If the quarantine is at the employer's insistence, rather than in response to government directive, it is likely the employee will have to be paid the normal wages they would have expected to receive had they worked their usual hours during the quarantine period.
    • If the employee chooses to self-isolate or quarantine of their own accord, the employer may not be under an obligation to pay for any non-working time.
    • If the employee voluntarily chose to travel to a destination of which it was known that the employee would be required to be quarantined upon their return, the employer may not be under an obligation to pay for non-working time during the quarantine period.
    • The employment contract, any employer policies, any collective agreement, and any benefits plan documentation could all affect the determination of what compensation, if any, an employee may be entitled to during a period of quarantine following their return from vacation. Determinations of these matters will be highly fact-specific and contextual.
    • The Federal Employment ("EI") program may be an avenue in creating options and addressing costs associated with absences occasioned by isolation/quarantine periods. The most recent information about the EI program should be consulted at the time of an isolation/quarantine. While employers may not prevent the travel, it is likely that employers can require employees to disclose where they will be travelling to or are returning from. See FAQ #3.

It remains the case that employers can impose reasonable rules on employees through policy, including rules that govern off-duty conduct. However, unless circumstances change dramatically, we believe a policy prohibiting employee's vacationing/travelling to certain areas would be unlikely to withstand judicial or arbitral scrutiny.

2. If an employee refuses to report to work citing a fear of COVID-19, what do I do?

Employees continue to have the right to refuse dangerous work under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Dangerous work is work that is reasonably believed to constitute a danger to the worker's physical, psychological, or social well-being, or to that of another person's.

Upon notification that a worker is refusing to attend work on the basis of the workplace being dangerous due to COVID-19, the employer's usual obligation under OHS to inspect the dangerous condition would arise. The employer would need to investigate, including involving any required parties under the Act, and if the conditions found to be dangerous take any necessary action to remedy those conditions. During the period of refusal and any subsequent investigation, the refusing employee can be reassigned to other work and must continue to receive the same wages and benefits they would have received had they not refused to work.

A test for whether a workplace carries a reasonable danger of COVID-19 has not yet been determined. Such a decision will be a factual determination made on a case-by-case assessment of the workplace. The nature of the work, the proximity by which employees work together or with customers/clients, and the travel history of employees at the workplace might all be relevant considerations.

Employers should consider the Government of Alberta's "info for employers" with regard to COVID-19, available online and updated regularly, for a general indication of how COVID-19 is being considered by government from a risk perspective. [3]

3. Can I require an employee tell me where they have travelled to or will be travelling to?

We believe the circumstances are such that employers will be entitled to require employees to provide this information. The request for such information is a minimal interference with their privacy and supported by the employer's obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to ensure a safe workplace for all.

If an employee has been to a known location where COVID-19 risks are pronounced, it may be appropriate for the employer to conduct a further investigation to determine whether a quarantine may be appropriate for that employee in order to protect other persons at the workplace. Determinations of travel destinations where risks are pronounced should be based on official information sources such as the Government of Canada's travel advisories, rather than speculation. [4]

4. Can I require an employee to work from home?

In most cases, yes. Generally, an employer is entitled to determine the location of its workforce. If an employer wishes to require the employee to work from home, the employer must ensure the employee has adequate resources at home in order to continue to perform the duties and obligations of their job successfully. If only some employees will be required to work from home, but not all, the decision as to which should be made on the basis of valid business reasons and not based on impermissible considerations such as the employee's family status or marital status.

Temporary changes to an employee's job duties or hours may be permissible if made directly in response to concerns about COVID-19. However, long-term, significant changes to the employee's duties, number of hours, or compensation, without proper notice of those changes being given in advance, could create risk of a constructive dismissal claim. Employers should refrain from using COVID-19 as an excuse to initiate a reorganization without providing employees proper notice of changes being made.

5. Can I require an employee not to report to work if I have concerns about their health?

Caution should be exercised when attempting to hold an employee out of work where there is no documented health problem.

It remains the case that an employer is entitled to require an employee get medical documentation confirming their fitness for duty if the employer has a reasonable belief that the employee may have a condition which requires accommodation. However, given current and anticipated strains on the Alberta healthcare system caused by COVID-19, employers may wish to avoid overburdening the system further by requiring employees to seek doctor's notes where it is not wholly necessary.

As a best practice, employers should engage in an open dialogue with employees where there are concerns as to the employee's health. The employer should let the employee know of any available sick leave, benefits, or EAP/EFAP programming that may be accessed if the employee is feeling unwell, as well as any vacation entitlements or statutory leaves of absence the employee may have access to.

6. If an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19 and must be quarantined such that they cannot report to work, do I have to pay them?

It is important to emphasize that an employee diagnosed with COVID-19 should generally be treated the same as any other employee diagnosed with an illness. Treating a COVID-19-positive employee to a lower standard than that of workers with other illnesses could create risk of a claim of discrimination under human rights law. The employee should be offered the usual benefits, sick leave, or other entitlements generally available to other employees who come forward with illnesses.

Where an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, the employer should take ready action to ensure the ongoing safety of the workplace. If the diagnosed employee previously worked in close proximity with other employees, those employees should be quarantined immediately. The employer may wish to consider immediate sterilization and sanitization of the COVID-19-positive employee's workspace used before their diagnosis. All efforts should be made to ensure the workplace does not present a danger of infection to other employees. The employer should also bring the diagnosis to the attention of any relevant government authority.

7. If an employee is not diagnosed with COVID-19, but chooses to self-quarantine and not report for work, do I have to pay them?

There is generally no obligation in law to pay an employee who does not report for work (provided the non-reporting is not at the employer's insistence). However, given the uniqueness of the COVID-19 situation and an appreciable public policy desire to reduce transmission risk by encouraging persons to self-isolate if they are feeling sick, it may be that some form of financial relief is appropriate.

Employers may wish to consider supporting an employee's decision to self-quarantine, even in the absence of a strict legal obligation to do so. Such support could take the form of offering the employee an opportunity to use their vacation time, to access other beneficial programs, or to provide a short-term paid leave of absence. It may be that an employer offers to provide certain benefits on a temporary and gratuitous basis to help employees through a period where their income may be diminished by a decision to self-quarantine.

Employers should recognize the risk of negative public perception that may arise if an employee, choosing to remain home out of an abundance of caution, is negatively affected in terms of job prospects or compensation.


The situation in Alberta with respect to COVID-19 is changing daily. Government resources should be consulted at least daily by employers wishing to remain apprised of the latest information. [5] This challenging period may pose many legal questions as events unfold rapidly - we are here to help.

[1]As at March 11, 2020. See:
[4]Supra note 2.
[5]The Government of Alberta is currently committed to two updates per day to its online resources at