Throughout the U.S., nonessential businesses will continue to reopen as the threat of COVID-19 declines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), levels of COVID-19-like illness (CLI) remain lower than peaks seen in March and April. However, this does not mean companies are safe to resume normal business operations, certain precautions must be taken to ensure employee safety and of the customers and staff.
Issues to Know for Employee Safety
Employee safety is a top concern for many business owners who have recently reopened or plan to reopen in the upcoming weeks. Up until now, nonessential businesses have remained vacant. As employees begin to return to work, certain measures must be taken to minimize the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The CDC recommends that businesses maintain open communication with building management to address unique hazards that may have developed when the building was closed for several weeks. The intrusion of mold, stagnant water, rodents and other pests can cause potential health risks.
It may also be necessary for businesses to rearrange physical workplaces. To reduce foot traffic and promote social distancing, seats and workstations should be spaced at least six feet apart. Signs and other visual cues like floor tape can help employees remember where to walk and stand. Communal items, such as coffee pots and water coolers, should be exchanged for pre-packaged, single-serving items.
Before reopening, employees may require training to plan for changes in the workplace. Training should focus on the risks of COVID-19 transmission and ways to reduce these risks. Topics of discussion may include social distancing, proper protective equipment, relevant leave policies and personal hygiene. Employees should also be instructed to notify their supervisor and self-isolate if they experience coronavirus symptoms.
Know Your State Regulations
At the height of the social distancing restrictions, more than 310 million Americans were instructed to “shelter in place,” according to USA Today. By mid-June, every state started to relax its stay-at-home guidelines with some counties returning to near normal.
Members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force proposed three phases of reopening with each phase providing specific safety guidelines for individuals and businesses. During Phase 1, employers were instructed to return employees to work in phases, encourage telework whenever possible, close common areas, and minimize non-essential travel.
Many states have entered or surpassed Phase 2 which occurs if there is not a significant rebound of cases within 14 days of Phase 1. During Phase 2, gyms, youth activities, bars, large venues, and restaurants were allowed to reopen due to laxer social distancing guidelines.
In Phase 3, states can continue to “return to normal” and resume public interactions while practicing social distancing. High-risk industries, such as hospitals and senior living facilities, are permitted to reopen with fewer social distancing guidelines. State governors are responsible for determining when and how each phase is implemented.
Revise Employee Policies
Before staff starts returning to work, businesses need to define and revise employee policies. Clear communication is required from the start to ensure that employees understand these changes and how they will impact the workplace. It may make sense for some staff to work from home if they do not need to be physically in the office. Set expectations and procedures for telework to deter miscommunication.
With the introduction of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), an employee qualifies for paid sick leave if he or she is unable to work due to specified reasons related to COVID-19. Businesses must modify employee policies relating to leave requests to include regulations published under FFCRA.
It may also be necessary to develop protocols for employee health screenings, rules for social distancing, and disciplinary actions if these protocols are violated. Businesses should also consider creating new policies for unique issues that have arisen since the start of the pandemic, such as furloughs.
In addition to leave and furloughs, business owners should explore the impact of COVID-19 on employee benefits and compensation plans. Furloughed employees may need to update their benefits information or re-enroll in applicable health plans. Businesses should also review wage issues, such as reporting split shifts, as well as calculate how the lengthy shutdown has affected existing incentive plans and bonuses.
Avoid ADA Issues
On April 17, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance for employers on handling accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the new ADA revision, an employee may request an accommodation for a medical condition in the workplace or at home. Employers have the right to request medical documentation to determine if the employee’s disability is actually covered by the ADA.
During the pandemic, there is an urgency to provide these accommodations. Employers have the option to forgo the requirement to submit medical information and grant the request with or without a specified end date. When the business reopens, the need for accommodations may change.
For employees with known disabilities, businesses may inquire about accommodations before reopening. This can help make the transition back to work go more smoothly. An employer experiencing an undue hardship has the right to deny a requested accommodation if it will cause a “significant difficulty or expense.” However, it is always preferable to seek an alternative low- or no-cost accommodation. Before making a decision, business owners should review their current budget and determine if there is an acceptable means for meeting the desired request for accommodations.
Brush Up on Your Employee Benefits
Employees returning to work following the COVID-19 pandemic may have certain concerns regarding their safety in the workplace. Developing a versatile employee benefits package is key to help ensure that employees remain safe and comfortable after reopening the business. A temporary pay increase, hazard pay, and other benefits may help encourage staff to return to work. Businesses will also want to ensure that they stay in compliance with all state and federal regulations regarding employee benefits. For more information about how to promote employee safety when reopening a business, reach out to the business benefits experts at BBG.