Can Employees Be Terminated for Not Following COVID-19 Safety Guidelines?
Employees throughout Canada have received extensive safety training related to COVID-19. Over the last year, it would be difficult to find anyone who did not know the basics of wearing masks, social distancing, and self-isolating.
So, when a worker does not follow the guidelines, what is an employer to do? In the case of a screening officer at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, the response was termination. And a labour arbitrator agreed.
The Details of the Case
The airport screening officer was employed by Garda Security Screening Inc., a company that ensured all its employees received the COVID-19 safety guidelines produced by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Garda Security Screening had the expectation that employees would abide by these guidelines for their safety, as well as that of the safety of their coworkers and the general public. Among the guidelines was the requirement to self-isolate when waiting for a COVID-19 test result.
The employee notified her employer on 12 April 2020 that she had tested positive for COVID-19. The employer asked for more details so it could identify others who may have come in contact with her. In her written statement, she explained that on 6 April 2020 she had received a COVID-19 test. As she waited for those results, she claimed she did not work between 6 April and 8 April 2020. Although she stated she did not work on those days, she claimed to be unaware of the requirement to self-isolate.
Garda Security Screening then began an investigation and uncovered that the employee had, in fact, worked on 6 April and lied about it. During a 23 April meeting, she was asked for an explanation and she responded that she worked on the day of the test because she did not feel ill. Her employer then presented her with a COVID-19 safety bulletin produced by the Public Health Agency of Canada. She admitted that she had seen the publication, which clearly states the self-isolation requirements while awaiting test results. She also confirmed that she had signed the company’s code of ethics. Based on her actions and her responses, the employer terminated the employee.
The Arbitrator’s Findings
The labour union filed a grievance for the termination, and the case was referred to an arbitrator. In that case, Garda Security Screening Inc v IAM, District 140 (Shoker Grievance) ( OLAA No 162), the arbitrator quickly ruled that the termination was justified, and the employee’s grievance was dismissed.
Although the employee was unionized and had termination protections under the collective agreement, the arbitrator found that her actions were a clear violation of the guidelines. The arbitrator asserted that the employer had fulfilled its requirements in providing safety guidelines and ensuring that employees were aware of them. In addition, the arbitrator stated that given the seriousness of the pandemic and the media attention it received, it was hard to believe that the employee would not know the consequences of not self-isolating.
Further, the arbitrator noted that the employee showed no remorse for her actions, explaining that “the actions of the grievor were a clear violation of the employer’s and public health guidelines. Her claim of not feeling sick is absolutely irrelevant. She was required to isolate, as she knew, for the safety and health of others. She chose not to, thereby putting countless others at risk of illness or death.”
Advice for Employers and Employees
This case proves how critical it is to follow health and safety precautions in the workplace. Employees should make every effort to understand the guidelines and adhere to them. Those who fail to do so are subject to dismissal.
To protect their workers and their businesses, employers should comply with all public health guidelines; ensure that they update their written policies and procedures on a regular basis; and insist that all employees sign a company code of conduct. These precautions will illustrate the employers’ commitment to safeguarding their employees and their workplaces.