This article will summarize some key information and resources for businesses on a few fronts:
- Government resources and links
- Legal issues
- A general life update
It’s taken me a few more days to get this out to you than I would have liked, but I was waiting until government responses and support programs had firmed up, and frankly I’ve been busier than a one legged cat trying to hide shit on a marble floor as we convert Last Straw Distillery to produce sanitizer for the duration of the crisis.
So, without further ado…
COVID-19: Government Resources
I always recommend getting your information directly from official sources. Here are some key links for you and your business:
- Health Canada – Outbreak Updates
- Canada’s Economic Response Plan (including wage subsidies, credit, tax deferrals)
- Ontario – COVID-19 Information
- Ontario Together (supply/solutions/suggestions)
COVID-19: Legal Issues
The contents of this article are certainly not legal advice, however I aim to provide you with some basic information and recommendations on the legal effect of this outbreak on small businesses in Ontario. This will cover some obligations to:
- Landlords & other contracts
- Customers/the public
Layoffs. As it stands now, unless you have a written contract with your employees that allows you to lay them off, laying them off is the same as firing them without cause. Same goes for reducing their hours significantly. That means you would either need to give them working notice, or pay in lieu of notice. Given how many businesses in Ontario are or will be in a tight spot on this front, I expect that we’ll see some direction from government in the near future that may give you some alternatives.
Leave. On the flip side, an emergency law was passed in Ontario allowing employees to take COVID19 leave in certain circumstances, including if they’re:
- actually infected,
- ordered into quarantine by a doctor or other public official,
- caring for a family member,
- in self-isolation as a control measure, or
- ordered by their employer
Other categories of unpaid leave – such as child care in the event of school closures – would also apply.
Safe work environment. This is a big one. Employees have a right to refuse unsafe work, and can’t be punished for doing so. You have a duty by law to provide a safe working environment, which would include a duty to protect employees from undue risk of exposure to the virus. Should you be open at all? If you determine that you must be open, what steps should you take to protect employee safety? What’s required will vary depending on your business. Email me to start the conversation.
Human Rights & Privacy. Kid gloves are required here. Your workers’ health status is their protected health information, and you are required to keep it confidential. Special rules apply to health information, compared to other personal information. Care must be taken to avoid your safety-motivated questions about worker health being interpreted as discriminating against a worker because of a pre-existing health condition. Email me to discuss what’s required.
Courses of Action. It seems that the most logical first step is to have a conversation with your employees, and see if you can:
- assess the risks & vulnerability of each worker; and
- agree with them as to the best way to approach the situation.
Your biggest overhead expense is likely your most worrying. The outbreak may be a “force majeure” event covered by your lease, or it may not be (landlords commonly still require you to pay rent during the force majeure event). The landlord may be getting property tax breaks or deferrals that may or may not be passed on to you as relief from additional rent under the lease. It depends on the wording of your lease.
Customers & the Public
As in normal situations, you have a duty to take reasonable care to prevent injury/loss to others. What’s reasonable during the outbreak will depend on the nature of your business, but in any event, the government recommended policies are probably a good starting point:
It’s possible that your business insurance may have coverage for COVID-19 related business interruptions. This would typically be under “business interruption insurance”. This is a form of insurance that landlords often require when they don’t allow you to escape paying rent in a “force majeure” situation, so pretty common.
Review your policy, and see what the coverage and requirements may be. I haven’t heard yet how insurance companies are responding to the increased claims (whether by increased coverage denials or otherwise), but if you have a coverage dispute, let me know and I can recommend some insurance litigators to help you fight for what you’ve paid for.