Return to Work: Remaining Open Safely and Effectively

September 23, 2020

As businesses and many schools resume greater operation after COVID-19, many employers have questions about how to protect their business from COVID-19 related legal claims and how to resume “business as usual” in the new state of normalcy. Below are some tips to help protect your business and your employees:

• Follow local, state, and federal guidelines.

Remaining vigilant as to guidance helps keep your business compliant and helps keep the local community safe. For example: schools in New York State are mandated to inform the Health Department about cases in the school community. This helps health officials identify and mitigate outbreaks. Be aware of guidance changes as well as local outbreaks, and be prepared to adjust accordingly.

OSHA recommends implementing basic infection prevention measures. This includes having employees remain home when they are feeling unwell, providing a place and the supplies for people to wash hands (or providing hand sanitizer if handwashing is not feasible), providing tissues and trashcans. Employers should institute frequent cleaning of the workplace, discourage employees from sharing workstations or equipment if possible. If sharing work equipment is necessary, it should be disinfected between uses.

• Communicate with colleagues.

Your employees should be well informed as to new workplaces procedures in light of COVID-19. You and your employees should be fully informed as to the safety precautions and action plans so that operation can be as smooth as possible.

For example: The CDC recommends that people wear masks in public settings, particularly when unable to maintain a distance of six feet from others. As such, it is advisable for those in the workplace to wear masks if they are not alone in an enclosed space. Employers should communicate the mask expectation, as well as any other expectations regarding COVID-19 safety, in writing or over email so that it is clear and reaches all staff. Posted signage can also help serve as reminders and to help supervisors enforce the new rules.

Many employers worry about what action they should take if an employee becomes sick or symptomatic at work. This is where having a safety plan is crucial. OSHA recommends having a designated space or room separate from the main workspace that will be used in the event an employee gets sick at the workplace.

Communicating employer procedures and safety plans is key to maintaining a healthy staff and mitigating spread in the event the someone does become ill.

• Have a plan for remote or limited operations.

Businesses that have the capacity to go remote ought to equip all employees with the technology to securely work from home. While not all businesses, such as restaurants and medical offices, can go remote, there should be a plan in place for more limited operations. For example: many restaurants transitioned to take-out only during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Having an online or telephone system where customers can place orders and an established delivery method may help keep business going in the event of another wave of COVID-19.

• Be aware of new forms for leave.

If your employees need to take leave under the federal coronavirus leave law, the FFCRA, you as the employer need to be prepared to fill out the proper documentation. The Department of Labor has also issued updated FMLA forms as of this summer, although this specific form is not required.

• Do not exclude any employee from the workplace based on age or medical condition.

Research indicates that certain populations – such as older adults and those with certain underlying medical conditions – may be at risk of more severe illness from COVID-19. It is crucial that you do not make staffing decisions, or demand that only certain employees work remotely, based on the aforementioned categories, even if your intent is to keep them safe. Furthermore, it is critical to maintain records pertaining to all employment decisions so that you can explain why an unfavorable decision was made in the event of a legal claim.

• Be consistent in enforcing business safety protocol.

Safety measures you have carefully crafted will not be effective unless you ensure that all employees and clients follow them. Being unfair or inconsistent in application of workplace safety protocol could leave employers vulnerable to legal claims.

• Find ways to measure productivity if employees are working remotely.

As a last tip, it is tougher to track employee progress when you cannot stop by their workstation to see how things are going. Setting deadlines and goals for employees is one way to keep them accountable for completing their tasks. Another way to help employees measure their productivity is to have them track their tasks on software. This helps them to remain accountable and you, as the employer, to see how much time your employees typically need for various tasks.

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