Coronavirus Is a Wake-Up Call: Are You Listening?

Mar 16, 2020
| David Pearson, Senior Vice President, HR & Organizational Development


As the number of documented cases of coronavirus continue to climb, the amount of concern and misinformation about the virus are also rising.

Coronaviruses are nothing new. However, we are currently facing a previously unseen strain. As of right now, researchers around the world are working hard to contain, treat and combat this newest coronavirus strain, COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 80% of people infected with COVID-19 recover without needing special treatment. Only about 2% of people who have contracted the disease have died.

That said, pharmaceutical manufacturers estimate a vaccine is up to 18 months away, so most companies, both small and large, are taking drastic measures to limit the spread of the outbreak. Major retailers are temporarily shuttering locationsthousands of flights have been grounded, and many concerts, trade shows and large gatherings have been canceled.

Though this outbreak currently dominates news headlines, employers are always faced with protecting employee health. According to federal, state and OSHA regulation, employers have an ethical and legal responsibility to keep their employees safe at work. Therefore, any situation that unnecessarily exposes employees to unsafe conditions may open up an employer’s risk of liability.
 
Here’s what to do to maximize your employees’ health and wellbeing while ensuring you remain compliant with all human resources laws and regulations.
 

Taking steps for business continuity

Coronavirus need not produce major adverse effects on your business productivity.  If you haven’t already done so, evaluate your current workflow, looking for areas where you can adjust policies and practices to protect employees from exposure events, while providing them with a stable foundation to continue their work. Focus on offering tools and  strategies to keep up the pace of the workflow, even during expanded durations of employees working outside of the office. Uncertainty can cause alarm, so clearly communicate with your staff that you are taking this issue seriously and will offer direction as soon as your organization has a clear and specific process in place.
 

Evaluate whether travel is essential

As cases of COVID-19 continue to appear globally, employers may wish to temporarily restrict non-essential travel. Though some employees may be required to travel as part of their job description, now is a good time to review the status of upcoming domestic and international meetings. Is the trip non-essential? Can the meeting be handled electronically? Can you conduct the meeting via web conference? If the answer is yes, set up alternative measures.
 
HR must address each case on an individual basis. Individuals who state they are pregnant or have compromised immune systems may be more susceptible to contract the illness. Be sure to never make assumptions regarding pregnancy, age, or any other health issue. Doing so may open you up to discriminatory actions and a company/individual can be held liable.
 
Communication between employees and managers is important. HR managers should be sympathetic to employees who are hesitant to travel at this time. To avoid gossip, direct employees to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Q&A page or the CDC’s coronavirus page for reliable, current information.
 
If a trip is mandated for business purposes and an employee brings virus back, employers may also hold liability respective to worker’s compensation claims for any individual infected.
 

Update your PTO policies

Now is the time to conduct a close review of your sick time and paid time off (PTO) procedures.
 
Update programs and policies that apply to your current state and outline what will happen in the event of a mass outbreak. Consider what steps you should take to ensure your company has appropriate technology in place to allow employees to work remotely, with minimal impact to the operational performance. Articulate procedures for all scenarios and make sure your policies apply uniformly across all company locations and all levels of staff.  It is important to pre-test any tech application to ensure accuracy.
 
Most organizations’ policies are not detailed enough. Review pay practices in the event someone goes home early or continues the day working from home. Formalize your policies for exempt vs. non-exempt employees. Align your policies with state and federal regulations to ensure compliance. Make sure your HRIS software can be configured to match your policies.
 
Keep in mind, paid time off and sick leave policies are regulated by human resources laws and regulations which vary at the federal, state and local level. Your HR manager at your PEO should review your company’s policies to make sure they are compliant.

Empower managers to use their own discretion

Well-meaning staff may want to “power through” their illness. However, sick workers increase the risk of infecting other employees. Empower managers and HR supervisors to speak with employees who aren’t feeling well. Sick employees should be sent home to rest or continue working from home. Take employees at their word. If they complain of ill health to their supervisor, it’s better to send them home than to risk the spread of infection throughout the office.
 
Now is the time for companies to develop a work-from-home policy or reassess existing policies to make relevant updates. This may involve implementing new technology measures like enabling remote login to company servers via VPN or setting up digital collaboration tools.
 
Additionally, companies must take into account how the increasing number of school closures can affect employees with children. Working parents may request to work from home to mitigate this departure from regularly scheduled routines.
 

How to make your workplace safer

While it’s impossible to safeguard your office entirely against the spread of illness, there are steps to help reduce the chances of the workplace acting as a Petri dish. Follow the guidelines as listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some of the important steps to take are:
 
Encourage employees to wash their hands – Post signage and distribute communications urging employees to wash their hands more often. It sounds simplistic but hand washing stops the spread of germs.
 
Make sanitizer available – Increase the amount of hand sanitizer dispensers and antiseptic wipes and sprays available throughout your physical workplace. These materials are often seen in the bathroom or kitchen but should also be present in conference rooms, employee lounge areas, and other highly trafficked common spaces.
 
Add more tissue boxes – Make sure tissue boxes aren’t stored only in bathrooms. Employees are more likely to use tissue when it’s within easy reach, thus reducing the spread of germs.
 
Wipe down door handles – Instruct your cleaning crew to incorporate wipe-downs of door handles with anti-bacterial solutions into their cleaning routine. These high-traffic spots are prime locations for transmitting germs but are often overlooked.
 
Increase your cleaning crew’s presence – If you’re not doing so already, increase the number of rounds performed by your cleaning crew. Encourage the use of disinfectant spray on more surfaces as part of their regular cleaning regimen. 
 

Communicate often with staff

Poor communication is the rumor mill’s best fuel, so keep your employees in the loop. Share your current sick policies and any updates you make. Let staff know how new policies will keep their workplace more sanitary. Encourage them to speak with their supervisor or your company’s HR team to discuss their concerns related to travel or if they are feeling sick themselves.
 
Be cognizant about unintentional discrimination or assumptions. Don’t assume a higher risk for someone who has been to an affected area or country or has relatives that reside in those regions. Above all, be aware of the challenge and be empathetic to your employees’ concerns. They, too, want to feel safe and secure ­­so they can do the best job possible.
 
Don’t let COVID-19 induce panic in your workplace. However, do use it as an opportunity to inoculate your business against avoidable HR administration disasters.
 
Make sure your sick leave and PTO policies are up to date and fully compliant. Our HR management experts can help.