Situation raises questions about employers’ responsibilities when staff test positive for COVID-19
As soon as Alexia Del Priore found out she’d tested positive for COVID-19 last Saturday morning, she informed her boss at a downtown Toronto meditation studio.
She says she expected her employer would leap into action to inform as many people as possible to ensure they got tested, especially before the holidays.
But that didn’t happen right away, even after her coworker — who’d been teaching in the studio — experienced symptoms, she says.
Del Priore noticed she had a sore throat while at the studio the Thursday before and had been in close contact with about 25 people, including coworkers and clients. A few days after she tested positive, a coworker did too. Both found out they had the highly contagious Omicron variant.
The meditation studio’s representatives told CBC News in an email they believe they handled the situation appropriately.
But Del Priore has since quit over the studio’s handling of the outbreak.
“It’s such a betrayal,” she said. “I was sick in bed for three days with COVID and I had to deal with worrying about public safety because they’re not doing their job.”
Del Priore’s situation raises questions about the responsibility employers bear if staff test positive for COVID, especially as the highly contagious Omicron variant becomes the dominant strain of the virus.
There are “cataclysmic consequences” if employers get it wrong, according to employment lawyer Howard Levitt.
If someone is infected with COVID-19 from a workplace outbreak and gets gravely ill or dies, the employer could be fined under the province’s Reopening Act, he said.
“They have a legal obligation to immediately tell anybody who might have been in close contact,” Levitt said. “You can’t wait for public health. You’ve got to jump through whatever hoops to get a hold of everyone and make sure they know.”
Employment lawyer Alex Lucifero said once an employer is aware of even one case, it’s obligated to inform all other workers as soon as possible or risk opening itself up to lawsuits.
Hoame Meditation, the studio where Del Priore worked, told CBC News in an email that it followed Toronto Public Health guidelines, which defines an outbreak as two or more cases within 14 days. It maintains neither Del Priore nor her co-worker was contagious while at work.
But according to Toronto Public Health a person is contagious from 48 hours before symptoms start — or if they’re asymptomatic 48 hours before they’re tested — for about 10 days. Anyone who interacted with them during this time would be considered exposed.
With the emergence of variants of concern, like Omicron, public health said it has lowered its threshold for who it considers a close or high risk contact. That includes all staff, visitors or patrons who were within two metres of a person with the virus, with or without a mask, for 15 minutes or more.
The Ministry of Labour said employers must inform any workers who may have been exposed.
Studio initially informed 1 employee
Hoame co-founders Carolyn Plater and Stephanie Kersta said in the joint statement that after Del Priore informed the studio she’d tested positive, they immediately told one other employee who’d been in close contact with her.
“We strive to be as open and transparent as possible and to operate within the guidelines of Toronto Public Health at all times,” they said.
On Wednesday, the day after the studio found out about the second case, they said they notified the city’s public health agency using the online reporting tool. The studio also sent a memo to staff reminding them of its “robust health and safety protocols.”
However, the email, seen by CBC News, did not disclose there had been two confirmed cases.
It wasn’t until this past Thursday — a week after both employees had been in the studio and experiencing symptoms — that the studio says it advised staff about the cases.
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But it appears the studio has still not notified clients, or made any announcements on social media or on its website as of Friday afternoon.
Hoame did not say why it didn’t inform staff sooner or notify its clients about the possible exposure.
Adriana Parente was in the studio with Del Priore and said she still hasn’t heard anything from the studio about the outbreak. She only knew to get tested because Del Priore contacted her directly.
“I feel very uncomfortable knowing there’s probably people in that class that potentially could have carried it or be positive,” Parante said. “It’s not necessarily a place that I feel like has my best interests in mind when it comes to my health and wellness.”
Parante said her test came back negative, but that she doesn’t plan to go back to the studio anytime soon.
As for Del Priore, she said three days after she tested positive, Toronto Public Health gave her a call as part of its contact tracing efforts and she explained the situation.
But as of Friday morning, the studio said it had not heard from the city agency.
The public health agency said it is prioritizing investigating cases in high-risk settings such as hospitals, long-term care homes, shelters and schools. If it finds a workplace is not in compliance with public health regulations, the city, public health and police will determine next steps including enforcement or education.