Businesses are facing a swath of staffing challenges following another lockdown aimed at combating the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, labour experts say. 

From dealing with low employee morale to labour shortages, employers are once again re-writing their plans to prepare for a "new normal" nearly two years after the pandemic first started.

The latest salvo came on Monday when Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced new restrictions that would limit indoor gatherings, stop indoor dining, and order gyms, theaters, concert venues, and other indoor businesses to temporarily shut down. Those changes take effect Wednesday until at least Jan. 26, Ford said. 

"Employers are in a real crisis right now with respect to retaining talent and having talent locked and loaded and able to perform their work," said Laura Williams, managing partner of Toronto-based Williams HR Law LLP. 

While Canadian businesses may be frustrated dealing with yet another lockdown, many had already figured out contingency plans to determine if they can continue operating with staff working remotely or on-site, Williams said.

However, those plans could be in jeopardy if employees exhibit COVID-19 symptoms and need a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm that diagnosis, she added. Ontario recently restricted PCR testing for individuals considered high-risk or those who work in high-risk settings. 

"You will have employees now calling in sick much more frequently if they're expected to attend work on-site, saying that they can't come in because they have [COVID-19] symptoms," Williams said. 

RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Gitlin said in an interview Tuesday it might "get messy" for some of its tenants who may have staff call in sick as they might not have enough employees available to avoid any forced closures. He noted RioCan hasn't mandated its staff to return to work unless their jobs are deemed necessary to be on-site. 

Kathleen Chevalier, a partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP practicing in the firm's employment and labour group, said after two years of COVID-19, employers and employees alike are more equipped to deal with these measures, but added that the latest lockdowns will inevitably hurt some businesses that are forced to shut down for the month. 

"We have clients who own gyms and it's a really difficult thing to face another closure of a facility," Chevalier said in an interview. "You have employees that are now having to go on layoff and have to collect employment insurance. From a morale perspective, it's very difficult to manage."

Chevalier said that with high vaccination rates in Canada, as well as signs that the Omicron variant isn't as severe as previous COVID-19 variants and a reduction of isolation timelines, some employers will be forced to manage their way through the latest wave if they face staffing issues.  

"There's a general labour shortage so when you have staffing dip because of all the Omicron-related issues, whether it be childcare needs, now that schools are closed or taking care of somebody else that might be sick, it's a struggle to get through those right now," she said. "Everyone's just really doing the best they can."

In light of the current lockdown - and the potential for future restrictions if additional variants lead to more COVID-19 waves, Williams suggests that employers rethink how they deliver their services in a new remote-working reality. 

"There is a real opportunity here for employers to just rethink how they work and how they expect employees to work," she said.