On March 18, 2020, B.C.'s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Mike Farnworth, declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Farnworth's announcement comes after the B.C. Government declared a public health emergency earlier this week. The BC Government most recently declared a state of emergency during B.C.'s wildfires in August 2018 in order to ensure that citizens did not return to areas under a mandatory evacuation order.
How can this happen?
The B.C. Government's authority to declare a state of emergency is granted by the Emergency Program Act, which provides a minister or the Lieutenant Governor in Council with the power to require local governments, provincial ministries, crown corporations, and other government agencies to develop emergency management plans and programs to respond to disasters, emergencies, and catastrophes.
How can this affect employers?
During a state of emergency, the minister or Lieutenant Governor in Council has the power to enact certain measures, which include:
- procure, fix prices for, or ration food, clothing, fuel, equipment, medical supplies, or other essential supplies;
- acquire or use any land or personal property considered necessary to prevent, respond to, or alleviate the effects of an emergency or disaster;
- control or prohibit travel to or from any area of B.C.;
- cause the evacuation of persons and the removal of livestock, animals, and personal property from any area of B.C. that is or may be affected by an emergency or a disaster and make arrangements for the adequate care and protection of those persons, livestock, animals, and personal property;
- authorize the entry into any building or on any land, without warrant, by any person in the course of implementing an emergency plan or program or to prevent, respond to, or alleviate the effects of an emergency or disaster; and
- cause the demolition or removal of any trees, structures, or crops if the demolition or removal is considered to be necessary or appropriate in order to prevent, respond to, or alleviate the effects of an emergency or disaster.
How long will a state of emergency last?
The Emergency Program Act provides that a state of emergency lasts for 14 days, but can be extended for further periods of not more than 14 days each.
How does this interact with an employer's duties under Occupational Health and Safety Regulation ("OHSR")?
If there is a conflict between the Emergency Program Act and any provision under the OHSR, the Emergency Program Act prevails for the period that a state of emergency is in effect. However, to the extent that orders under the Emergency Program Act do not impact an employer's responsibilities under the OHSR, the employer must take every precaution to ensure the safety of its employees.
Some of our employees are self-isolating and thus not fulfilling their work duties. Can I terminate their employment?
No. On March 17, 2020, B.C. Premier, John Horgan, announced that the B.C. Government plans to amend the Employment Standards Act to ensure job security for employees who have self-isolated as a means of preventing further spread of COVID-19. Premier Horgan's announcement follows on the heels of recent announcements by the Alberta and Ontario Governments that they will amend their respective employment standards legislation to allow employees to take protected leave for the purpose of self-isolating. The proposed amendments to employment standards legislation in these provinces intend to solve the dilemma that many employees currently face of either working on site or self-isolating in order to protect public health.
To learn more about workplace strategies for communicable illnesses and handling COVID-19 in your workplace, please contact a member of Gowling WLG's Employment, Labour & Equalities Group.