‘Tis the time, once again, to celebrate the holidays. Thanksgiving has come and gone and we have to look forward to the rest of the holidays. The end of November and the month of December normally see restaurants and bars filled with colleagues taking time to come together in celebration at the end of another year. But the question is, how do we celebrate the season while we are in the midst of a pandemic?

This question is especially relevant to employers. Employers have a responsibility to keep their employees safe. This responsibility is heightened by the current pandemic, particularly in provinces like Ontario, in which the numbers of individuals infected with COVID-19 are one the rise.

Employers Duty to Keep Employees Safe Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Ontario)

In Ontario, most employers fall under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) which imposes many legal duties on them. Such duties include but are not limited to:

  • Taking as many precautions as possible and reasonable in the circumstances to ensure the protection of employees;
  • Advising a worker, or any person in authority over a worker, about any hazard in the workplace, and train that worker in the handling, storage, use, disposal, and transport of any equipment, substances, tools, material, etc.;
  • Delivering, to the joint health and safety committees or the health and safety representative, the results of any occupational health and safety report that the employer has received.

Taking Precautions to Reduce Risk of Transmitting COVID-19 in the Workplace

As can be imagined, due to the contagious nature of COVID-19, it is important to take precautions to keep one’s employees safe. That involves creating a work-safety plan. Under a risk-reducing work-safety plan, employers should:

  • Make sure people, including workers, visitors, and clients, maintain a physical distance of two meters or more from each other;
  • Make sure that workers, visitors, and clients wear masks. Recently, the Public Health Agency of Canada has recommended that individuals wear three-layer non-medical masks with three layers, including a filter;
  • Make sure to frequently disinfect objects and surfaces, including desks, chairs, doorknobs, keyboards, drawers, and particularly bathroom and kitchen surfaces;
  • Make sure that hand-hygiene is observed, including frequent hand-washing;
  • Make sure that employees are reminded about good cough and sneeze hygiene and remind them to avoid touching their face.

One Unsurmountable Barrier to Having Physical Workplace Parties: The Red Zone Designation

So, can physical work holiday parties can be held during COVID-19? The answer looks like a solid “no”, in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area. While an employer can take every precaution listed by the different levels of government, the problem is, with rising COVID-19 numbers, especially in Ontario, holding holiday parties in an enclosed space with a group of people physically present is still a risky endeavor.

However, what truly puts an end to any type of in-person holiday party, is that many major cities in Ontario, such as Toronto, are currently designated as red zones. As Ontario’s coronavirus infection rates keep rising, more and more cities are moving into the red zone, which means large group gatherings will be forbidden by the government. In the red zone, group activities are limited to 10 people in an enclosed space and 25 people outdoors. However, group activities, or “social activities” must also be confined to members of the same household, and/or one or two individuals that are designated as “essential supports”.

There are fines for violating these restrictions, and they are quite steep. Under the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act, penalties include, “a fine of not more than $5,000 for every day or part of a day on which the offence occurs or continues”. Under the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020, the host of a public event, social gathering, or party can face fines of upwards of $10,000. Not to mention that if an employee were to contract the coronavirus due to a work party, they could take legal action against their employer.

One Solution; Virtual Holiday Work Parties

However, that does not mean that employees and employers are barred from having holiday parties altogether. There are alternatives out there, which include having holiday parties over online meeting applications.

As many employees and employers are working from home now, most workplaces have become more and more familiar with online meeting tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, etc., These meeting applications make it possible to see multiple people and hold multiple conversations at the same time. This is ideal for hosting a social event like a remote workplace holiday party. There are also many virtual activities and games that can be played online using these online applications.

So, while a physical holiday party might not be a possibility at this time, the alternative, a virtual holiday work party, makes celebrating the holidays with one’s colleagues possible during the current pandemic.

For advice on employer liability and other employment or labour law matters, contact the offices of Toronto employment lawyers Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP. We regularly advise workplace parties on a wide range of legal workplace issues. Contact us online or by phone at 416-364-9599 to schedule a consultation.