In the coming days and weeks, states will begin to initiate their COVID-19 reopening plans, bringing millions of employees, customers and vendors back into the workplace. While each state is responsible for establishing and communicating its own guidelines, we anticipate a number of important challenges and concerns that all employers will need to grapple with.
For organizations like yours, it’s critical to stay informed. Admittedly, many of us are on information overload (and perhaps even fatigued by the influx of COVID-19 news coverage). However, as you return to work decisions, it’s more important than ever to be educated about federal, state and local guidelines and solid best-practices. This is especially important if you have business operations in multiple states.
Here are some issues that employers are facing:
Federal vs. State vs. Local Requirements: Which Do I Follow?
Guidelines seem to change daily and some, quite frankly, are contradictory. Consider designating a small task force of leaders, advisors and employees who will stay informed of and review the parameters and implications that are specific to your industry, locations, customers and team members. Advisors such as your CPA, attorney and HR experts can provide valuable guidance as requirements are announced.
PPE and Mandatory Masks: Safety Mandates vs. Supply vs. Freedom of Choice
Proper personal protection equipment (PPE) is critical to safely resuming operations. However, the supply of many types of PPE has been depleted. As you prepare to reopen, first take note of the critical PPE that is needed to protect your people. Consider delaying your opening or offering select products/services only if equipment is not available.
The guidance regarding facial masks has changed over the past few weeks, with several states wrestling between mandates, recommendations and individual freedoms. For example, Ohio announced facial protection mandates only to adjust them a few days later based upon input from manufacturing, health care and other industries. Like any other safety requirement, employers are encouraged to follow the most current regulations, taking into account factors such as job requirements, proximity to others and ensuring overall safe working conditions. Establish and communicate clear expectations for your employees while they are in the workplace. Be sure to include different scenarios such as off-site visits to customers, field work, travel, etc.
Child Care During a Pandemic: What If My Employee Does Not Have Child Care?
School and day care closures have required that many parents work from home, paving the way for a seismic shift in the nature of the “virtual office.” However, some positions simply cannot be done away from the workplace. Employers should carefully weigh positions and job duties to determine work that can be done from home, with considerations such as providing flexible hours, company laptops, Wi-Fi subsidies, headsets or other equipment if needed. Still, some employees will struggle to work remotely and take care of their children. Additional guidance is outlined in great detail in a Q&A format here.
Are the FFCRA and the CARES Acts the Same? I’m Overwhelmed.
On April 1, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act went into effect through at least December 31, 2020. In summary, certain employers must now provide employees with up to 10 weeks of paid and two weeks unpaid time off if the employee is caring for a spouse who has fallen ill from COVID-19 or for a child whose school or child care provider is physically unavailable due to the pandemic. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed immediately following the FFCRA, which allows for additional employee protections during the COVID-19 crisis.
It’s understandable that employers and employees are overwhelmed; in fact the Department of Labor’s Q&A guidance is now several hundred pages long. Employers are strongly encouraged to seek the advice of a seasoned Human Resources professional before communicating guidelines to groups or individual employees. Sikich has also created a comprehensive resource site available at https://www.sikich.com/coronavirus-resource-page/.
Business is Open but My Employee is Scared and Refuses to Return to Work. What Do I Do?
You must first understand that it is natural for your team members to have concerns. Just as they had fears when stay-in-place orders shut down important aspects of their lives (and your business), they will have concerns as you prepare to reopen. Positive, frequent communications will help address important employee concerns. It’s not too late to involve your employees (or union representatives) along the way to help generate solutions… you will likely be impressed at the situations and solutions that your teams think of along the way.
If you have an employee who simply refuses to return to work despite appropriate safety precautions, operating procedures and PPE, you have several options to consider:
- Discuss the situation openly with your employee. Be sure to document the concerns, consider the FFCR and CARES Act guidelines and consider flexible alternatives.
- If it is still appropriate to call an employee back to work, notify your state unemployment office by a detailed read-receipt email or fax. Don’t attempt to call, given the backlog of state offices.
- Worst case scenario, if an employee refuses to return, they are in effect abandoning their position and can be terminated (again, be sure to document this in detail).
My Employee Earns More on Unemployment Than Working! They Refuse to Return...
We are hearing of situations where this might have occurred due to the $600 per week supplement to state unemployment benefits under the CARES Act. This supplement includes part-time employees, self-employed and “gig workers” who may work multiple jobs. Remember, as an employer you have the right to explore the reasons for your employee’s concerns. After completing your due diligence, the bottom line is you may have the right to terminate an employee who refuses to return and should notify the state unemployment office of the date that the employee was called back to work.
What About Reducing My Payroll Through Wage/Bonus Cuts?
Reducing salaries and hourly wages is another incredibly tough decision, one that will likely impact the morale, physical and mental well-being of team members, as well as the likelihood of retaining key talent. The fact is the unemployment rate increased by two million workers in the span of five weeks—an unprecedented shift even by 2008 standards. Some employees may be understanding of reduced earnings in return for job security. Others may be resentful and initiate a job search (particularly those in high demand and/or specialty jobs).
Consider other options including terminating lower performing employees, eliminating non-essential fringe benefits, reduced work weeks or limiting reductions to highly paid executives. If you must slash payroll across the board, consider a defined time-period for reduced wages with a clear date when you will consider the implications of restoring pay to prior levels (and follow through with your promise to review). Ultimately, this is a decision that should be weighed carefully, involving your board, finance and human resources leaders along the way.
What If This Happens Again? Do I Need to Update My Employee Handbook?
Employers are experiencing rapid and drastic change right now. Taking time to update your handbook might be the last thing on your mind as your business navigates the economic, financial and people aspects of an unprecedented crisis. However, it is very likely that you are creating new policies and practices that will have longer term implications. An updated, well-written handbook serves as a resource guide to your leaders, managers and employees. While it’s not possible to document every scenario, organizations are encouraged to capture relevant regulations and business-specific guidelines. At the very least, once this pandemic has passed (and it will), conduct a detailed analysis of what went well, not so well and what needs to be documented in your employee handbook.
Many employers have been caught off-guard by the pandemic and ensuing situations. A thorough business continuity plan that includes emergency preparedness, technological, critical operating plans and procedures and virtual work-environment guidelines takes time but is well worth the effort in the face of uncertain times.