Dealing with SARS in the workplace

Available income replacement during quarantine and tips on what employers should be doing

As the death toll from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) continues to rise in Canada, many employers are facing the possibility of related absenteeism issues in the weeks ahead.

Some employers might also have to tackle employees’ concerns about on-the-job safety as anxiety rises among the general population about the spread of the contagious disease.

Hewitt Associates offers the following advice on income-replacement coverage and tips on what employers can do. For more information about SARS, click on the "Related Articles" link below.

Available income-replacement coverage during the quarantine period

Short-term disability (STD) and proof of leave. Insurance coverage for SARS-related absences is likely not directly addressed in the STD contract, leaving the decision of whether to cover the imposed leave through the STD plan to the employer’s discretion.

Several major insurance carriers have issued communications stating they consider those who are quarantined under medical orders related to SARS exposure “totally disabled” for the entire quarantine period for purposes of contract interpretation.

Quarantine periods in the absence of presenting symptoms do not generally qualify as illness under insurance contracts, though carriers indicate they will adjudicate such claims as eligible under STD plans. According to the Ontario Ministry of Health, a “quarantine applies to people who may have had contact with SARS, and encourages people to stay at home for the 10-day period following contact.

To prevent abuse of the quarantine leave, some insurers have stated they will require the following from those who claim the leave under a STD plan:

•an attending physician statement (will also accept a telephone APS);

•employee and employer statements; and

•willingness to answer additional questions as part of the assessment process, including inquiries into the nature of exposure or risk and on whose advice the quarantine is imposed.

Employment Insurance. Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) has said the Employment Insurance program will be an option for any eligible claimants who are unable to work because they are under SARS-related quarantine and are either not covered by an employer-sponsored STD plan or have run out of sick-leave benefits.

The Employment Insurance Act provides for up to 15 weeks of special benefits (sickness) when an eligible claimant is unable to work because of illness, injury or quarantine, to a maximum weekly benefit of $413.

Workplace-related issues

The Ontario Ministry of Labour has issued a detailed guideline pertaining to SARS-related work absences, outlining employer obligations during the quarantine period. The ministry has indicated such absences are covered under the emergency leave provisions (unpaid job-protected leave) of the Employment Standards Act, 2000.

As of April 2, Health Canada had not recommended workers be provided with special respiratory equipment, such as masks, except in health care facilities where quarantine orders or special protective measures are in place.

What should employers do?

Hewitt offers the following tips for employers:

•Review STD policies to determine whether or not quarantine measures are covered by group plans.

•Determine how salary and wages will be paid in the event the STD plan does not provide coverage. Funding quarantine-related absence through an insured STD plan may have a negative impact on experience rating, depending on the number of employees affected, and could increase plan costs for employers. Employers may also consider the options of funding the absence through salary continuation or unpaid leave to alleviate employee concerns of depleting sick-leave coverage during the quarantine period.

•Determine a course of action if an employee has been ordered under quarantine and continues to come to work.

•It would be prudent for employers to require evidence of illness similar to that required by insurers to substantiate the quarantine leave.

•Employers may wish to alleviate employee fears by either providing information or access to information on SARS that will help employees understand the facts surrounding SARS and its transmission. In some cases, employers may also wish to provide protective equipment to ease fears that SARS may be contracted at work.

•Employers should takes steps to ensure the protection of privacy for affected employees.

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