The COVID-19 pandemic has raised issues among Canadian businesses about work travel, employment law experts say, forcing companies to re-evaluate their travel policies.
Many Canadian employers are looking at ways to keep employees off the road unless the trips are for essential reasons, explained Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
“The world has shut down since March 2020,” she said. “Many people don’t want to travel for business right now because of health and safety issues.”
While travel for work is permitted in Canada, travelers must follow health and safety precautions, said Amy Frankel, an attorney with Forte Law in Surrey, British Columbia.
“Masks are required at airports, on public transportation, and in taxis or ridesharing vehicles,” Frankel noted. “Public health authorities have stated employers must make every effort to provide work-from-home options, and workplaces must ensure all workers maintain appropriate physical distance. Taken together, these current rules seem to suggest that employers should restrict unnecessary work travel whenever and wherever possible.”
Canada has some of the strongest restrictions in the world against inbound and outbound travel. The Public Health Agency of Canada has advised Canadians to avoid all nonessential travel outside of the country until further notice.
If travel into Canada is essential, all passengers 5 years and older are required to test negative for COVID-19 before traveling by air. Passengers must present documentation of a negative COVID-19 test result to the airline before boarding. Even if a traveler has proof of having the COVID-19 vaccine, this documentation will not replace a negative test result.
Travelers still need to provide their mandatory 14-day quarantine plan on or before entry to Canada, the Canadian government added. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Jan. 5 that travelers not following the 14-day quarantine rule post-travel could face consequences, including fines or prison time, according to Travelweek.
Working Safely in British Columbia
Canadian employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their workers, experts say.
The Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia, or WorkSafeBC, has insisted employers must take necessary precautions to minimize the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace. All employers in British Columbia are required to have a COVID-19 safety plan in place, Frankel stated.
Workers in British Columbia have the right to refuse work if they believe it presents an undue hazard, she said, meaning when a “worker’s job role places them at increased exposure, and adequate controls are not in place to protect them from that exposure.” If an employer is following all WorkSafeBC guidelines and public health orders, it is unlikely a worker could refuse to work, Frankel added.
WorkSafeBC has encouraged flexibility around working from home during the pandemic, noted Brandon Hillis, an attorney with Roper Greyell in Vancouver.
Company Culture During COVID-19
Work travel is not business as usual during the pandemic, Frankel said. “Employers have dramatically cut back work travel and are using technology such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams to hold virtual meetings, interviews, presentations, conferences and sales calls.”
Many employers are finding that technology usage to replace work travel has reduced costs, saved time and increased efficiency—particularly as the pandemic has accelerated the acceptance of virtual technology rather than in-person meetings, according to Frankel.
Onsite visits and inspections often are now conducted with an individual using a handheld camera to transmit images to a remote inspector, she noted.
Canada’s Second Wave
Both employers and employees should rethink their travel obligations, especially during Canada’s second wave of COVID-19, Hillis added.
According to Canadian news magazine Maclean’s, Ontario and Quebec are back in lockdown as of January 2021, while restrictions are in place in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Business travelers paying attention to public health orders in different provinces may opt to reject work travel within the country.
“The level of anxiety is high during Canada’s second wave,” Pau said. “Employers need to delve into why employees are concerned about travel and focus on mental health issues resulting from lockdowns and restrictions.”
Employers should treat refusals as serious and deserving of inquiry, Hillis said. Employers are “open to liability if they reject the refusals. They should go above and beyond in keeping the lines of communication open with employees.”
If an employee rejects work and travel during the pandemic, human resources should identify the employee’s specific concerns, Frankel said. HR, in tandem with the employer, should then work with the employee to make mutually acceptable arrangements.
Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.