What Employers Need to Know About Doing Business During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Cases of COVID-19 have now been confirmed in all 50 states and the virus is spreading throughout communities across the country. So, how do organizations need to adjust the way they do business during this crisis? This tip will address what employers can do now to be proactive in fighting the spread of the virus at the workplace, suggest policies that may need to be reviewed or created in light of the global health pandemic, and give guidance on “what not to do.”
Promoting Wellbeing and Safety at the Workplace
Employers can respond in a variety of ways to the health pandemic to promote wellbeing in the workplace. First, employers must communicate clearly and often with employees about the organization’s position on relevant work policies during this time (i.e. sick leave or extended sick leave, PTO, what to do when family members are sick, when to avoid coming to the office, etc.). Because new guidance from local, state, and federal entities is issued on an almost daily basis, continued communication is critical. Employees want to know what the organization is doing in light of new information and whether there are any updates to company expectations for employees.
Next, employers can proactively fight the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace by offering telecommuting options and flexible work hours if practical for the business model. In this approach, organizations can replace in-person meetings with video calls. Employers may also wish to prohibit all non-essential work travel.
Some organizations may decide to keep the workplace open because of the business model. If the organization permits employees to work from the office, the employer should encourage good hygiene in the office, including handwashing, using hand sanitizer, regularly disinfecting common areas, and following a no-handshake policy in the office. Additionally, employers may wish to encourage employees to avoid public transportation. Some organizations may need to reorganize desk spacing to allow employees to practice social distancing in the office. Organizations that permit employees to work in the office may also wish to consider disabling the recirculation of internal air that has not been purified. For additional information on how your organization should respond to COVID-19, review “Guidelines for Coronavirus in Business Settings” prepared by Chen Shen and Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute.
Many employers may go to a “rolling” approach, having some employees work at home, and having employees that must work from the office attend on a “rolling” basis so that there are very few employees present at the office at the same time.
Reviewing Relevant Policies
There are a number of policies that employers may now need to revisit or even develop in light of the global health pandemic. First, does your organization have an infectious disease policy? If not, that may be something worth developing right away. The company’s infectious disease policy should include the organization’s right to exclude individuals from the workplace, and to require employees to submit to a medical exam if there is reasonable cause to believe the employee presents a threat to others because of a medical condition. This policy should also give the employer the right to quarantine an employee or send the employee home if there is a risk to the workplace. This policy should also make clear that it is the responsibility of the employee to refrain from coming to work if there are any symptoms present. In addition, this policy should specify that employees have a duty to report if they may have been exposed to COVID-19. The policy should direct that notification will be provided to all employees of possible exposure from another employee. The policy should include reporting procedures and detail supervisor responsibilities. Finally, this policy should also address the possibility of restrictions on work travel and in-person meetings.
Other policies the organization may need to create or review for updates include leave policy, travel policy, and a pandemic response plan. Employers should also consider reviewing the company’s business insurance and understand the benefits and coverage of company-sponsored medical and retirement plans for employees. For additional information on what should be addressed in these policies review the “Coronavirus Employer Guide” prepared by Lockton.
What Not to Do
Organizations should avoid doing the following things:
- Don’t require a sick note from employees who are out ill due to a respiratory sickness, as doctors and hospitals are not seeing people if they are not seriously ill.
- Don’t share confidential health information with others at the organization. (If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the organization should alert all other employees of possible exposure to the virus but should not release confidential health information.)
- Don’t make decisions about the risk of an individual based on their race or country of origin (which is different from a decision based on recent travel).
- Don’t fail to provide accommodations for disabilities (like the immunocompromised).
- Don’t ask employees about health conditions that would be affected by COVID-19. (Since it could disclose a disability, the question is unlawful.) However, it would be lawful to ask employees to let you know if they need any additional support.
There are a variety of things employers can be doing right now to curb the spread of COVID-19 at their workplaces and within their workforces. Determine what steps are best for your organization. Review policies and create new ones to address this crisis. Avoid problems along the way, by steering clear of the what-not-to-do list. As always, be sure to reach out to experienced counsel with questions on how to update old policies or craft new policies to ensure the most legal protection for the organization.
Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.
Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations