The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact individuals and businesses worldwide. Employers have likely felt the impact of the pandemic to some degree, whether it’s been moving employees to remote work setups, adjusting work and sick leave policies to comply with new and expanding federal, state and local laws, or developing or retooling their infectious disease outbreak plan and business continuity plan. Now that it’s been nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, it’s a great time to reevaluate your existing policies and procedures, and adjust as necessary in your continued efforts to protect employees as well as your business.
Communications and workplace policy changes
Information and guidance from public health authorities related to COVID-19 continues to change. That’s why it’s a good idea to continue following the most current information on maintaining workplace safety and disseminating updated information to your workforce. Trusted resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local departments of health frequently provide updates on their websites. Additionally, employers should be ready to continue to implement strategies that help protect workers and make them aware of actions you have taken to help keep them safe, particularly as you’re considering bringing your staff back into the workplace.
Consider taking time to assess existing company policies such as sick leave allowances. In addition, employers will need to be mindful of their obligations to provide workers with leave – both paid and unpaid – under new and expanding federal, state and local laws. Keep in mind that while the mandate requiring covered employers to provide leave as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) is no longer in effect, employers who were subject to the FFCRA may choose to voluntarily continue offering benefits under the FFCRA framework and they may be eligible for tax credits.
Also, be careful about making any decisions that could be deemed unlawful discrimination under federal, state or local laws. If you’re uncertain about the requirements that apply to your business, you may want to work with an experienced HR professional or consult with your legal counsel.
To be certain everyone is on the same page with respect to your company's leave policies, consider a full-scale communications effort to address the topic. You may want to outline in detail the extent of your current leave policy and, if you are making changes as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic, spell out all the information as clearly as possible.
Consider appointing an HR representative (or similarly informed company representative) to become knowledgeable on the situation and to act as a contact for employees who may have questions or concerns about any of these changes.
If you have employees who have been working from home this past year, you may be considering whether to continue remote work arrangements for the long-term. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, sustaining a permanent work-from-home arrangement requires its own protocols and best practices. Employee time and attendance tracking, employee liabilities, staff availability, and cybersecurity considerations are just a few.
Make sure to also consider exempt vs. non-exempt employee status and the potential impact on pay for work-from-home employees. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employer must pay non-exempt workers at least the minimum wage for all hours worked, and at least time and one half the regular rate of pay for hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek.
Travel policy considerations
With much business travel curtailed since early 2020, many businesses are re-examining the value of business travel in the future. Many tradeshows, conferences, and other business gatherings have successfully moved online, and this may be a viable option for your team well after travel restrictions have been lifted. Given the frequent changes in travel restrictions, employers should continue to monitor national and international travel advisories, as well as any specific concerns issued by reliable public health authorities. Keep in mind that businesses cannot restrict an employee’s personal travel decisions, employers may inquire about an employee’s personal travel plans provided they do so equally for all employees and the inquiry is consistent with business necessity.
What you can do to help maintain a safe, healthy work environment
Given that COVID-19 is a highly contagious viral illness, continue reiterating general best practices around maintaining a safe and healthy work environment to onsite staff members. If you haven’t already done so, develop a comprehensive written plan that outlines steps being taken to protect employees against infectious diseases, especially for COVID-19. An Exposure Control Plan should include the following:
- Detailed account of how you’re addressing the risks to employees posed by this disease
- Evaluation of potential changes to (or refinements to the use of) personal protection equipment (PPE)
- Administrative controls being implemented to help curb spread of the disease
- Modifications to existing personnel policies to include updated requirements regarding work separation and staggered shifts
This type of comprehensive plan is beneficial to employees (and, by extension, to the entire organization) to have in place. At the same time, documentation of this kind is essential, if and when you’re contacted by OSHA to ascertain your business’s preparedness with respect to COVID-19.
Use our template for an infectious disease preparedness plan to help your business cope with this ongoing crisis. Some states and localities may have specific requirements around creating an infectious disease response plan and this template may not meet expectations everywhere.
Infection prevention measures
Basic infection preventive measures should cover essential steps every onsite employee must take to protect themselves and their co-workers. These measures include:
- Frequent and thorough handwashing
- Wearing a face mask
- Social distancing whenever possible
- Eliminating shared work tools and equipment
- Regular cleaning and disinfecting of office surfaces and equipment, as well as all other aspects of the workplace environment
Many businesses – those that have remained open throughout the pandemic as well as those preparing to reopen – have implemented various workplace controls to prevent the spread of COVID-19. If you haven’t already adopted them, consider the benefit of using controls such as:
- Installation of high-efficiency air filters
- Expanded rates of ventilation in the workplace
- Added physical barriers where appropriate (i.e., clear plastic sneeze guards)
- A drive-through window for customer service
Other refinements of work policy and/or procedures may be necessary to ensure employee safety. Continue to take steps that significantly modify contact amongst employees, customers, vendors, and clients. Suggested administrative controls include:
- Replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual communications
- Suspending any non-essential travel
- Implementing emergency communications policies
- Continually providing fact-based education and training on COVID-19 risk factors
- Offering training, as needed, to employees in the use of PPE.
All or much of the above can be included in a written COVID-19 exposure control plan. These recommendations can be modified to fit your specific work conditions. Having a plan in place can help reassure employees as well as those your team interacts with that you’re taking all sensible precautions to protect their well-being.
For more information, be sure to review OSHA’s guidelines on COVID-19.
Many business leaders see themselves playing a role in employee vaccination in an effort to protect their staff. A recent Paychex snap poll* found that 75% of small businesses (10-49 employees) and 85% of medium-sized businesses (50-500 employees) plan to motivate their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. You may be able to develop mandatory vaccination policies for employees that comply with federal requirements. According to recent guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a mandatory vaccination policy may be lawful under federal employment laws, if the virus poses a “direct threat” and the employer provides reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, medical conditions (including pregnancy) and those with sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances. However, depending on the nature of an employer’s business, a number of practical issues should be considered before imposing a mandatory vaccine program and employers should consult with their legal counsel before doing so. Likewise, employers considering offering incentives to employees to receive COVID-19 vaccination should seek guidance from legal counsel.
Given that developments continue around COVID-19 vaccine mandates and availability, clear and continuous communication with employees is crucial. Refer to our COVID-19 vaccine FAQ for more information.
Have a business continuity plan in place
The COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest threat to warrant implementation of a business continuity plan (BCP) in your workplace.
Documenting steps to follow in the event of a disruption (whether it be a pandemic, natural disaster, loss of power, large-scale cybercrime, etc.) can be the key to your company's long-term survival. A BCP involves identifying potentially disastrous events that may affect your company and assembling a list of procedures that detail how to respond to, operate during, and recover from these specific threats.
Although business continuity plans may appear complex and time-consuming, even a basic set of policies and procedures can be useful. Both large and small companies can be impacted by business interruptions, but smaller companies may not have acquired the necessary financial resources to quickly recover after a period of downtime.
It’s important that you inform everyone in your company about the details of your BCP and/or infectious disease outbreak plan. Depending on your business, customers should also be informed of the impact of your BCP on service.
Policies and procedures can help guide employees until conditions return to a business-as-usual environment. These can include:
- Inform them about their roles and give them the opportunity to practice business continuity procedures.
- Document the intended methods of communication in the event of an emergency — via text message, phone, or email. Written instructions included in a small business continuity plan should categorize additional job responsibilities.
Taking the initiative to update customers on a continuity plan demonstrates a proactive and committed approach. To maintain customer relationships through a crisis, plan to communicate with clients in a variety of ways, such as:
- Updated website information
- Communicating via social media channels
- Contact key customers by phone or email
Assure customers they have ways to stay in touch with your business during a crisis. Providing a range of communication methods before a business interruption occurs may help ease customers’ uncertainty if and when a serious situation arises.
People may be concerned about infectious disease control both in and out of the workplace. As an employer, you can take appropriate preventative actions – obtaining and continuing to stay informed of the facts, reviewing company policies including sick leave policies, work at home policies and business travel plans, and doing everything possible to promote a safe work environment – to help keep your business thriving during difficult times.
Take this opportunity to check your current policies and procedures, and reach out to HR and workplace experts like Oasis to ensure you and your business are ready for whatever comes next.
* Paychex conducted an online survey of 300 principals of U.S. companies with 2 to 500 employees. The survey was fielded Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2021.