Henry: Businesses facing staff shortage due to COVID absenteeism have few options


Provincial health officer says owners may have to close their doors if they can’t find workers to replace sick employees

Local officials are not sugarcoating the possibilities of what may happen to small businesses that are heavily impacted by absenteeism caused in the latest COVID-19 spike.

At the latest daily COVID update today, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that — while the province is working on guidelines for mildly ill workers to return to their jobs in key sectors such as health care, policing and firefighting — that option will likely not be available to the average store owner.

It means that a business may have to close if too many of its workers stay away from work voluntarily due to COVID symptoms, Henry said.

“It is a reality that, for some businesses, if they have a lot of people off sick who aren’t able to work, they will need to find ways to either have additional staff — or they may need to close,” Henry told reporters at the news conference Wednesday afternoon.

“That has been a reality through this pandemic.”

She noted the key is preventing the spread of COVID-19 — especially the highly contagious Omicron variant that has now pushed the province’s daily new case count near 3,000 — among workers at a place of employment. That means the onus is on the business owners themselves to not only ensure employees are vaccinated, but also that the “layers of protection” such as plexiglass, social distancing measures and cleaning procedures are in place.

“These are things we want to prevent,” Henry said about businesses having to close because of COVID-triggered absenteeism. “The best way to prevent them is to make sure everybody in your setting is vaccinated and that we have those COVID safety plans — that thinking that we had — that worked for us through the last part of these last 24 months… So going back to thinking about what we had in place before the vaccinations.”

The issue of COVID absenteeism and its effect on businesses came to the forefront recently during the Omicron wave in the United States, when Christmas Eve saw more than 2,000 flights delayed or cancelled due to pilots and flight attendants calling in sick because of contracting COVID-19.

The staff shortage caused by the absenteeism heavily disrupted travel during one of North America’s busiest travel seasons, while reports of similar, staff-shortage-driven disruptions were also seen in sectors such as live entertainment and restaurants/hospitality.

Henry did say that the province is looking at “fitness for work” for employees in the health-care setting to make sure the overall system can maintain “continuity of care.”

“Obviously, if somebody is sick — if it’s with COVID or with any other illness — we don’t want them in a workplace setting because it’s a risk to others,” she said.

“But there are certain settings where we need to have that balancing of continuity of care… So we need to look at what are the measures we need to have in place to ensure that — particularly people who have mild illness or are asymptomatic — are able to safely do work in those workplaces if needed.”


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