When your employees ask, “What are we going to do when COVID-19 gets worse in our community?” you can’t say “I don’t know.” If you’re an employer, you need a plan. You need to address what you’ll do to keep your employees as healthy as possible and what your employees can expect from you as their employer.
According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “Most American workers are not at significant risk of infection,” but some workers may have elevated risk because of interaction with potentially infected individuals1.
The Center for Disease Control recommends that employers clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches and faucets with household cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants; encourage employees to regularly wash their hands; place alcohol-based hand sanitizer around items handled by numerous people such as shared computers and copiers; ask all employees to exercise good cough and sneeze etiquette; and immediately send sick employees home.2
As employers strive to comply with the CDC guidelines on cleaning the workplace to prevent transmission, those tasked with the cleaning may face hazards from the chemicals in the cleaning materials themselves. Employers need to carefully handle any concerns voiced by these employees as OSHA prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for raising safety concerns. OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standard requires that employers provide employees with equipment such as gloves, eye and face protection and respiratory devices when hazards may cause injury or impairment.
If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers have an obligation to notify coworkers and customers about their possible exposure. At the same time, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires the employer to do everything it can to maintain confidentiality for the affected employee’s identity and medical information. Employers should also seek CDC guidance on how to conduct a risk assessment of other employees’ potential exposure. As OSHA considers the coronavirus to be a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job, an employer must record any COVID-19 cases. The employer may need to contact a hazmat company to disinfect the job site before other asymptomatic employees return to work.
Although employers need to encourage sick employees to stay home, ill employees may not feel they can financially afford to remain home. Employers do not need to pay hourly workers for time not worked unless those employees have accrued paid time off. Depending on your state, an exempt employee must be paid for partial-day absences but may have his or her salary reduced for full-day or full workweek absences due to illness if the employer offers a paid sick leave benefit and the employee has exhausted that leave.
Some employers are taking steps to mitigate this hardship and to encourage sick employees to stay home by allowing them to work from home or by providing additional paid leave. Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Twitter all plan to pay their hourly workers regular wages and to encourage many employees to work from home. Walmart plans to provide up to two weeks’ pay for workers who are quarantined. Employers can also allow employees to who have used up their available paid time off leave to run a negative balance and replenish the borrowed PTO when they return to work. It is also likely that the coronavirus may qualify as a “serious health condition” under the Family Medical Leave Act, allowing an employee to take FMLA protected leave.3
Employers that require employees to stay away from work due to the employer’s implemented health and safety precautions need to proceed cautiously and to contact their HR or legal professional before designating time away from work as leave.
Currently, the CDC recommends that employers not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees out sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be overburdened and unable to provide timely documentation.
Many employers have suspended all non-essential business travel and business events involving large groups of employees. Meetings and employee training can be conducted via Skype, Lifesize, WebEx, Zoom or GoTo training. Employers also need to plan for how their business will operate in the face of unusual absenteeism or interrupted supply chains.
Finally, employers need to review their emergency management policies and practices, such as those it has for earthquakes, wildfires, floods, hurricanes or strikes. Employers need an effective emergency communication protocol, a plan for how to operate with limited staff and procedures for closing and opening offices. Employers may want to invest in additional technical support to allow more employees to work remotely. Employers that allow employees to work from home need to set expectations regarding working schedules, response time, output and time recording. If employees don’t provide reasonable productivity when working from home, leave of absences may be the next-best form of accommodation.
What’s your plan? If you haven’t yet made one, the time is now.
Lynne Curry, PhD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP and author of “Beating the Workplace Bully,” AMACOM 2016, and “Solutions” founded The Growth Company, Inc., an Avitus Group company, and is now a Regional Director of Training & Business Consulting for Avitus. Curry and her group regularly work with law firms and medical practices and hospitals. Curry and her team provide HR On-call, training, expert witness work, facilitation, strategic planning, investigation, mediation and executive and professional coaching. Curry has qualified in Court as an expert witness in Management Best Practices, HR and Workplace issues. She has served 21 times as an expert witness. You can reach her @ www.thegrowthcompany.com, www.workplacecoachblog.com or LCurry@avitusgroup.com.