On March 21, 2022, the province ended the mask mandate for most Ontario businesses and public spaces, with a few restrictions (transit, long-term care homes, hospitals etc.) scheduled to remain until the end of April. As of that date, at least at this time, all COVID-19 restrictions in the province are scheduled to end.
What does this change to mandates look like for businesses in the Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo region? Do employees or customers still need to wear masks? Can you enforce a mask policy in your business, even amongst your staff? What happens if someone disagrees with that policy – will you need to pay them severance?
Below are some considerations as the rules continue to change:
Do we still need to wear masks at work?
The short answer is ‘no.’ Unless you are in a workplace where it is still mandated (see above), then the mask requirement, along with the proof of vaccination requirement, has now ended.
According to the government, this means that neither your staff nor your customers need to be wearing masks. However, if you are running a private company, you effectively set the rules. This means that you can leave a mask requirement in place for employees or visitors if you so choose, subject to providing accommodations based on the Ontario Human Rights Code requirements. Large businesses in the United States such as Amazon, Target, Costco, and Home Depot have all maintained mask policies for staff after government mandates had ended.
This would function like any workplace uniform policy – employees need to be informed of the requirements and expectations, and the policy should be applied uniformly across the board. Any discipline for violating the policy needs to be clear and consistent – an employee should not be penalized for a violation while their manager goes unmasked without any consequences.
What if an employee wishes to keep wearing a mask?
So long as the mask does not interfere with an employee’s duties then they should be allowed to continue wearing a mask if they feel that it is important for their health and safety. Employees in Ontario are not required to disclose the exact nature of their medical conditions (or if they have a condition at all), so an employee may be immunocompromised without their employer knowing and wish to continue protecting themselves.
Remember that health conditions might also preclude an employee from wearing a mask, just as they may have during the mask mandates. Any workplace policy needs to take into account exemptions for those who are medically unable to wear a mask, and these employees must not be punished for their medical exemptions.
What if an employee objects to a mask policy?
This is an interesting scenario that businesses who are looking to maintain their mask policies will unquestionably be faced with. If the government said it’s okay to take the masks off, then why are you (the employer) making me keep them on?
Employers should treat mask policies like they would other workplace policies – they should be in place for a purpose, and the benefit of the workplace. Employers are also mindful of their obligations to protect workers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act – they may believe that a continuation of masks is the safest way to protect employees in high-traffic businesses, at least for a short time. Even if masks carry a corporate logo, no one is continuing to wear them simply because it’s fashionable.
An employee who violates a mask policy that has been made in good faith should be treated the same way that they would any other policy violation. There may be a series of warnings and progressive discipline measures, and if the employee continues to disobey instructions, employers can move to terminate their employment.
The key difference is that even if an employee refuses to comply with a continued mask mandate and is terminated, they may still be owed termination/severance pay. The threshold for terminating an employee for just cause (and removing any payment obligations) is incredibly high, and a policy that continues masks after the government mandates have ended may not hold up as a strong argument for cause.
As an employer, you will need to assess whether continued mask mandates are right for your business. If you are going to implement a policy, make sure that policy is properly constructed, and that all staff members are clear of their obligations, as well as the potential consequences for defying this policy.
It is always wise to seek professional advice when drafting and implementing your workplace policies. Our employment lawyers regularly work with businesses in the Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo region to make sure that their workplace policies properly protect the business and their staff, and support a healthy and productive working environment. Contact us today to set up a consultation and learn more about how we can help.