Unless you are totally “off the grid,” you have heard news of the Coronavirus, more specifically COVID-19.  While one must not overreact as there is more unknown than known about the virus, as a business owner, Human Resources professional, or manager, you have a responsibility to your workforce to be appropriately prepared for this as you would any other possible disruption such as a flood or an ice storm.  This article will not provide you definitive answers.  Each of you will have different considerations.  It will provide you with a road map of things to consider.  We strongly encourage you to think about these things sooner rather than later.  While it is likely you will never need to implement a crisis response plan, it is better to have one ready than to be caught with none.

Communication Plan

This is perhaps the most important item on your list.  Do you know how you will communicate information to your workforce should you have an immediate need to do so?  If some of your workforce is not provided access afterhours to your email for example, do you have an updated contact list for use after work hours?  Who in your organization will be responsible for approving and then making any communications?  Can communications be made remotely?

The very nature of a “crisis” may necessitate an unexpected need to contact some group or all of your workforce.  Knowing who will do this and how is a critical component of your plan.

Sick Workers

We are a society that values “working through it.”  However, workplaces need to change their focus in the face of COVID-19.  Employers need to encourage anyone who is sick – especially anyone with a fever and cough – to stay home.  Perhaps employers should take the approach that schools do.  At a minimum, no one returns to work unless they are fever free (without the assistance of any medicine) for at least 24 hours.  Of course, if there are any suspected cases of COVID-19, you will want to adhere to the current guidance of health officials.

You will want to review your leave policies.  Does your company provide paid sick leave?  Will it be sufficient if your business is impacted by COVID-19?  For many workers, being off work for 14 days if that time is unpaid could be such a financial burden that they opt to come into work, risking the health of coworkers, customers, clients, and others with whom they come in contact.

Check with your short-term disability policies, if you have them.  Will they cover absences for COVID-19?  What is the waiting period before they begin coverage?  These will be questions you will be asked.

Return to work.  Again, we are at the brink of knowledge.  You ordinarily want a sufficient return to work note after the absence but the note will also need to be mindful of the requirements of applicable laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.  In the wake of COVID-19, the CDC is recommending that you be lax (or at least more flexible) on any return to work note requirement.  First, the CDC worries that strict requirements will disincentivize people to stay home because it can be expensive to see a doctor and its main goal is to be sure everyone who is sick stays home (so as to avoid any further spreading of the virus).  Second, it is concerned that health care providers will be even busier given COVID-19, making it more difficult for employees to even get the return to work note.

These are not legal recommendations.  These are just things for you to think about should you need to implement a crisis response plan and deviate from your normal policies.

Workers Who May Be Absent but Not Ill

There are three foreseeable circumstances where your worker could be absent but not actually sick.  First, your business might close for some period of time due to COVID-19.  This is already happening in parts of the United States.  You might make the decision or the decision might be imposed upon you.  Either way, do you have a plan?  Can some portion of your work be done remotely?  In some businesses such as professional offices like accountants, the answer is probably yes.  In other businesses such as restaurants, the answer is no. You may also want to consider how any such decision would impact your exempt and non-exempt workers differently.  Some thought should be given to what you might do.  Again, what will happen to the workers – they will ask.  Their primary question will undoubtedly be, will you continue to pay them while the business is closed?

Second, a worker may be absent because they are home because schools have closed and they have no child care.  Again, some schools in the United States have closed.  You may choose to follow your current policies, or you may choose to have different policies if you need to implement a crisis response plan.

Third, a worker may be needed at home to care for an ill family member or may be quarantined with a family member.  Or the worker may be quarantined, although not sick, because there is concern they may have been exposed to the virus.  At this point, any such quarantine would be voluntary and self-imposed, but the time may come when employees are forced to quarantine by doctors or other public health officials.

In all of these situations, you may want to consider whether this worker is able to work while at home (i.e. telework, telecommute).  That may be a workable solution, at least in part, for a person who is unable to come into the workplace but who is not sick.  (See below for a longer discussion.)

Travel for Work

Many employers require, encourage, and/or permit their workers to travel for work.  While it may be an easy call to restrict travel to Wuhan Province in China or the Veneto Region in Italy at this time, given that the virus has spread to many parts of the globe (including many states within the United States), you will undoubtedly be asked about travel.  Some workers will be unfazed by the news, but likely some workers will be cautious about travel at this time.  You need to prepare for conversations with workers who are wary to travel, especially workers who are in a group the health authorities say are more likely to become ill were they to contract COVID-19; e.g., older persons or those with underlying health conditions.

Telework / Telecommuting

There is much conversation in the news now about allowing your workers to work from home during a possible COVID-19 crisis.  While that may be a possibility for your workplace, there are things to consider.  First and foremost, you should not require any person who is actually sick to work while they are sick, even if they are working from home.  An employee who is ill should be given the time necessary to recuperate.  Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act may apply to the situations you confront and provide protections to your employees – both to those who are ill and to those who are caregivers. Remember to abide by all laws even during any time of crisis.

If you have the opportunity to permit telework during this period, some things for you to consider include:

  • For your exempt employees, it is simple.  They will remain on their normal salary and be paid.  For your nonexempt employees, it may be more complicated.  Establish in writing expectations as to the number of hours of work each day which will be performed and how that time will be recorded.  Be sure to regularly (no less than each work week) track that time and have the employee confirm in writing as to the exact hours worked each day.
  • Duration of the Agreement. Make it clear that the telework opportunity is short-term to address the COVID-19 situation and can be revoked at the employer’s discretion.  (While you may find telework is a longer term goal for your company, for now, you will want to be sure everyone understands it is a short-term fix.)
  • Presumably, this will involve some level of technology in the worker’s home.  If so, who will provide and pay for what?  This needs to be established up front.
  • An employee injured while working at their home may be able to claim benefits under the workers’ compensation laws.  It may be more difficult to defend against such claims as you have little control over the environment.  You may want to require they report any injuries while working in the same manner they would if at your workplace.

Team Approach

Finally, while we have focused on HR-related topics, your crisis response plan should involve a team of your leaders.  You should consider issues such as your information security issues and how telework or a plant shutdown might bear on your IT infrastructure for example.  You might want to address whether your business has insurance which might offset any losses you suffer.  There could be a myriad of issues involved in either a shutdown of your business, even for a brief period, or the loss of a portion of the workforce due to COVID-19 causing them to be out of work for some number of weeks.  The best way to prepare is to ask your business’s leaders to weigh in on the impact and how best to combat it.

This article has only scratched the surface of the questions that will face an employer if COVID-19 touches it workplace.  While we sincerely hope none of you are impacted, we also believe it is worth your time to think through these issues now.  If not for COVID-19, your “crisis response plan” could come in handy another day.  For more information on how your business can deal with COVID-19, refer to the CDC’s webpage on the issue.  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html

Be well.

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