As coronavirus cases begin to subside, the American people will be able to slowly reopen the economy and return to work. As an employer, what can you do to prepare for and facilitate this transition?

Just as it did during the early days of the outbreak, news will change quickly. Stay up to date on current research and guidelines from the CDC and national or state government. Understand longstanding and recent legislation. Without being informed, you will not be able to think clearly or make the most prudent decisions for your organization. Being informed is a prerequisite to the following solutions.

  1. Follow CDC guidelines and national or local legislation

The current wisdom from the CDC and White House includes several parameters before work can be resumed. These stipulations revolve around decreases in cases and the ability to provide testing in your region. They also recommend that reopening be accomplished in waves or phases. For example, you may open up your office for only certain people or certain times of the day and restrict activities such as department meetings. The White House recommends continued teleworking for the first two stages of the 3-phase transition. Become familiar with the guidelines in your state before reopening your workplace.

  1. Protect your employees

As you contemplate reopening your business, consider the effects on your workforce as a whole and as individuals. If possible, continue working remotely, even if other organizations are returning to their offices. Anything you can do in your organization to limit travel will protect your employees and your community. If remote work is not an option, consider ways to have as few people in the office as possible, like staggered scheduling, or a blend of remote and in-person work. If you have anyone returning to a physical location, be sure to implement the safety requirements advised by the CDC (social distancing, face coverings, increased sanitation procedures, access to hand sanitizer, taking temperatures).  Regard those guidelines as the minimum level of protection that you can provide and seek to implement further safety protocol for your workspace.

Though you may feel comfortable returning to work (many people may be eagerly anticipating a return to their routine), many Americans have strong reservations about returning to work because of the potential health risks. Be considerate of the fears and emotions of your employees regarding this change and try to accommodate those who wish to continue teleworking for a time. Under OSHA and NLRA, employees have a right to refuse to come to work and to gather and discuss or protest working conditions. OSHA does not protect employees with a general fear of contracting COVID-19, but it does protect those with a “specific fear” of becoming sick in the workplace; this could arise if your organization does not allow for appropriate social distancing or utilize appropriate PPE. The NLRA allows workers to discuss, confront leadership, and speak with the media about working conditions. It also protects them from discipline should they request accommodations or collectively refuse to work in unsafe conditions. The safer you can make your workplace, the easier it will be to avoid these claims.

Some employees may need extra flexibility because they are or live with a member of an at-risk population (over 65 years old, immunocompromised, between 45-65 with underlying conditions such as heart disease, experiencing respiratory illness). Be mindful of these extenuating circumstances and consider policies that give deference to such individuals. The ADA protects those with chronic underlying conditions, including immunocompromised individuals. The ADEA does not have a specific clause protecting workers over the age of 65, but it would be advisable to be considerate of such individuals when asking them to return to work.

  1. Protect your organization

The best way to protect your organization is a two-fold approach: achieve legal compliance and maintain employee trust. To achieve legal compliance, understanding the latest legislation is paramount. As a result of the coronavirus, new legislation affecting employee pay, benefits, and healthcare have been passed. Consult with a team of legal advisors to ensure your organization complies with both standard and recently amended legislation.

Some helpful approaches include:

-offering for employees to use PTO if they are uncomfortable returning. If they use all PTO, you may offer unpaid leave until they feel it is safe to return to work

-offering hazard pay to essential workers whose job functions are not conducive to following specified safety measures like social distancing

-listening to employee concerns about safety and evaluating opportunities to remedy those concerns

-understanding policies about furloughs and how to notify employees of extensions or cuts to the original furlough time

-notifying state unemployment agencies when your organization offers work to its previously unemployed workers

-communicating the qualifications to stay on unemployment after a return to work has been issued and the associated ramifications for employees who refuse to return to work in favor of obtaining state unemployment benefits

-requiring employees to sign any new or updated company policy documents before returning to work

-putting employees on leave rather than firing them

As you seek to protect your employees and make it clear that you are invested in their welfare, they will trust you and be less likely to blame you for any negative experiences that arise during this transition. An essential component of maintaining that trust is creating a channel of open and frequent communication between employer and employee. Even if you do not have all the answers or information that you would like to have before debriefing your employees, find ways to update and inform them as much as you can, which may look like this: “I don’t know when we will reopen our office, but we are having a meeting tomorrow to discuss a potential date.”

  1. Write it down

To ease the transition of returning to work, your organization may need to institute or revise work policies. Some organizations may expand their remote work policies; others may need a new safety program, including steps on taking or reporting employee temperatures. Whatever adjustments your organization makes, be sure to document the changes and, when applicable, require employees to sign a disclosure that they understand and agree to the updates.

Even after the cases of coronavirus in the US dissipate or disappear, future outbreaks of COVID-19 are likely. Take note of the events that occurred within your organization as you left the office, worked remotely, and returned to the office. What went well? What would you do differently? Work to develop policies so that your organization is prepared to act quickly and seamlessly when another outbreak or a natural disaster occurs. These policies could include an improved sanitation program, an infectious disease policy, a telecommuting policy, or a national health emergency plan. Document your new or enhanced policies and then train your workforce accordingly.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a trying time for many American organizations but has also given us an opportunity for change and growth. Compensation Works is here to help develop and implement new policies and structures for the human resources department of your organization. Contact us with questions by filling out a form on our website or emailing info@compensationworks.com