Some Canadian workers are raising concerns about a full return to the office and work travel as Ottawa lifts all remaining border restrictions and experts warn of a potentially large wave of new COVID-19 cases this fall.
The federal government says COVID-19 border restrictions will be lifted starting Saturday, including mandatory vaccination, testing and quarantining of international travelers, as well as requiring masks on planes and trains.
For many it is a welcome and overdue decision. But others are wary of this new phase of the pandemic.
The “living with COVID” stage has seen most mask mandates drop, self-isolation rules rejected, and mandatory workplace vaccination policies rescinded.
However, as the risk of repeated infection and prolonged COVID is better understood, some workers are concerned about exposure from a daily commute, travel for conferences, or working in a shared space.
Some are even leaving positions that require office attendance or significant travel.
Ben MacLeod quit his dream job due to health problems.
Earlier this year, he returned to his hometown of Halifax from Asia in search of professional experience and safe haven during the pandemic.
Nova Scotia’s response to the new coronavirus was among the most cautious in the world and he thought it was a safe bet.
Instead, he said he was told to work in person as the Omicron variant swept through the province. Most of his colleagues avoided masks, even as COVID-19 cases spread through the office. Quietly, he moved his laptop to an unused meeting room, but was told that he had to work from the open-concept office with everyone else.
The final straw came when he was reprimanded for not attending a work meeting, he said. There was no virtual option and no agenda other than noting that food would be served, a potential COVID-spreading event that he did not feel comfortable attending.
“They refused to accommodate me and I kept adapting to new levels of risk,” MacLeod said. “But they kept pushing and I don’t think I should jeopardize my health because of the job. So I quit.”
For workers with serious concerns about COVID-19, quitting may be one of the few options left.
Experts say the easing of government pandemic restrictions leaves little room for workers to oppose back-to-office mandates.
“A lot of workplaces follow the example of the government,” said employment attorney Hermie Abraham. “As long as the employer follows public health directives, I don’t see that they legally have a problem calling workers into the office.”
The exception would be for workers with a disability or underlying health condition that would require an accommodation, he said.
“Otherwise, as long as an employer follows occupational health and safety rules and public health directives, there really is no reason for an employee to object to working from an office,” Abraham said.
While employers may not be legally required to accommodate workers wary of a pandemic, it might still be a good idea.
Canada’s unemployment rate remains low, while job vacancies hit a record high of almost a million vacancies in the second quarter, Statistics Canada reported.
The situation could leave companies that enforce strict return-to-office policies or require extensive travel with few staff in a tough job market.
“Employers who aren’t flexible and dictate that employees return to the office could end up with disgruntled employees,” said Richard Powers, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
“It will also be more difficult for them to recruit employees at a time when there is really a war for talent.”
Companies that fire workers for refusing to return to the office could also face lawsuits alleging constructive dismissals, he said.
“Most employers are taking a controlled approach to returning to the office,” Powers said. “They recognize that things have changed during the pandemic and they are negotiating with employees how they are going to handle the new normal.”
Workplace health and safety expert Marianne Levitsky said employers can make efforts to support people with ongoing concerns about COVID-19 without necessarily imposing strict restrictions on all staff.
Ensuring good ventilation and air purification in the office, supporting the use of masks, encouraging booster shots, reducing office population density through a hybrid schedule, and offering adequate sick time with flexibility for people to with symptoms working from home could be part of a safe plan to return to the office, he said.
“There is no silver bullet,” said Levitsky, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. “But these multiple strategies can work together to prevent infections and keep people safe.”