Employers Council Hot Topics Special Edition: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

COVID-19, or coronavirus, is on everyone’s mind. Employees are scared, and misinformation is everywhere. Employers can help by creating calm, preparing well for ill employees and employees who need to care for ill family members, and reacting well if the workplace is exposed. This special edition discusses several elements of what employers can do, including HR’s role, technology and work at home options, and legal compliance. Employers Council has a comprehensive Emergency Preparedness FYI available for you to use.

What can Human Resources Do?

Human Resources and management will have a crucial role with regards to preventing panic, managing absences, and keeping employees healthy over the next weeks. COVID-19 is likely to remain in the news, and employees are scared. Employers can help maintain calm while also giving employees tools to stay healthy and take care of themselves or family should they fall ill.

Communication is the first order of business. Be sure you are communicating all the facts but not spreading misinformation. When speaking or writing about COVID-19, be sure to use official sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Correct and complete information will help employees stay calm.

Another thing employers can do is make it easier for employees to stay home through increased work at home opportunities and additional paid leave. Some employers are looking at increasing paid leave banks like sick, vacation, or paid time off to help employees stay home. When doing this, be aware of state laws and payout requirements for any paid leave programs.

If you have employees who regularly travel for work, can they do some or all of their work remotely? Do they need to travel, or can they meet via video/online meeting platforms? Also, if you have employees traveling back from affected countries, do you have support in place if they are stopped or quarantined on reentering?

It’s been said everywhere, but good hygiene is the best way to keep your workplace healthy.  Make sure employees know the proper hand washing techniques, avoid touching their faces, learn to cough and sneeze in their arm or in a tissue they can throw away, avoid close quarters with other employees if possible, and stop shaking hands. Ensure employees are using antiseptic wipes to clean their cell phones, desk phones, tablets, laptops, keyboards, mice, and any other objects that are in constant contact with hands or faces.

In the event you have an employee who tests positive, HR or company management should work closely with local health officials as to the next course of action. They will help you with closures and cleaning. Also, check with your cleaning services, building/facilities crew to be sure their cleaning supplies are effective against COVID-19, as well as other viruses and bacteria. Find out what the building management’s closure and cleaning plans are.

If you are considering furloughs or layoffs, please contact Employers Council to discuss administrative and legal considerations.

A final thought is to allow for flexibility with required doctors’ notes and forms. Doctors’ offices are likely to be busy, and filling out an excuse note or other forms will probably be last on their list. Be patient. 

How to Leverage Technology During Outbreaks

With confirmed cases and deaths in multiple countries around the world, organizations are beginning to assess all tools at their disposal to limit operational disruption while simultaneously taking steps to ensure the wellbeing of their workforces. Many of these solutions are technology-based and are applicable across industries.

According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), individuals showing signs of infection should be separated from healthy populations until symptoms subside. In light of this, companies such as Google, LinkedIn, and Microsoft have encouraged employees who can work remotely to do so. Others, such as Twitter, have directed all staff to work remotely, while Apple, Inc. went as far as to close all of their China-based retail locations temporarily. Many industries do not have the luxury of allowing employees to work at home, there are options for limiting face to face interaction, and therefore the spread of the virus.

  • Virtual Meetings – Many organizations already use some sort of virtual conferencing software to hold meetings and engage with clients; this technology can be applied to other processes as well.
  • Interviews – From phone screenings to virtual interviews, virtual conference technology can be leveraged to reduce face to face contact.
  • Onboarding – Although onboarding has traditionally been done in person, some organizations may be able to convert parts, or all, of these processes to a virtual platform. Employers can send digital copies of new hire forms and policies ahead of time to supplement the virtual training.
  • All Employee Meetings – Rather than having all employees gather in the same room, consider holding your large meetings virtually to reduce face to face interaction and the spread of any illnesses.
  • Digital/Over-the-Phone Health Assistants – According to the Wall Street Journal, major hospital systems and insurance carriers are rolling out their own digital health assistants and nurse hotlines to reduce the need for in-person care. These technologies can be leveraged by employers and employees to minimize operational disruptions and contact with co-workers and the general public.
  • IT Support for Remote Workers – Remote workers, especially those who are not accustomed to it, can struggle with some basic logistic considerations, and there are ways an organization’s IT department can help.
  • Electronic Signing Technology – Some individuals may not have printers or scanners at home, disrupting their ability to sign and send documents. Electronic signing software can help alleviate that.
  • Expense Reimbursement – Electronic expense platforms can assist in facilitating the capturing and reimbursement of expenses, preventing employees from having to be at the office physically.
  • Open Line to IT – Encourage employees to contact IT with any questions or concerns they may have. This contact may cause a strain on your IT team but will help limit operational disruptions for your work at home staff.

Legal Considerations

While employers’ primary responsibility and focus should be the health and safety of employees, customers, clients, and other visitors, there are legal issues to keep in mind as well.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA):

In the event your business closes, consider the FLSA. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, exempt employees who are ready, willing, and able to work should be paid a full salary when the employer closes the business for emergencies or operating requirements. When business operations are closed for a day or two, there is no way of knowing who would have been able to make it to work had the business been open. In this case, you should assume that all exempt staff were ready, willing, and able to come to work, and should pay them for any week in which work was performed or risk losing the employees’ exempt status.

While employers are only required to pay non-exempt employees for time actually worked, employers should look at time off or work at home options when available. Also, employers may want to waive or relax usual attendance and punctuality requirements when conditions affect the employees’ ability to report to work as scheduled.

Employers should also be familiar with state wage laws, as there may be additional provisions for business closures and absences.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA):

FMLA requires covered employers to grant eligible employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave for an employee’s serious health condition or caring for the serious health condition of an employee’s spouse, parent, or child under 18. It is imperative to remember that COVID-19 will not result in a serious health condition for the majority of the population that contracts it. In the case it does, employers should follow their standard FMLA procedures, with a reminder that doctors may be busy, so patience with forms is important.

Individual employers should determine if there is an applicable state leave law in each state in which they operate. Currently, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming have no state equivalent to FMLA.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA):

Update as of 3/13/2020: On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Pragmatically, this means that the virus has spread to every country in the world. For employers in the United States, it affects how we can interact with our ill employees under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

This guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) establishes ADA principles that are relevant to questions frequently asked about workplace pandemic planning.

Additionally, The EEOC advises employers against basing their assessments of whether an employee poses a direct threat on subjective perceptions or irrational fears. Employers’ actions should instead be based on objective and factual information, which the EEOC says can be in the form of assessments from the CDC or state/local public health agencies.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Under OSHA, an employer must provide a safe work environment for employees. If an employee has concerns about being asked to do something or go somewhere because they are worried about the risks of being exposed to COVID-19, the employer should treat it as an OSHA matter and investigate to make sure that they’re not violating the employee’s rights.

Workers’ Compensation

If an employee contracts the virus in the course of performing their work duties (example: a nurse treating a COVID-19 patient), then that may fall under workers’ compensation. Employers should check the plan documents for further clarification.

Resources

Resources for employers: