With massive industry conferences like South By Southwest in Austin canceling at the last minute, mandatory travel bans, quarantines, and work-from-home policies in force, companies are faced with balancing the health and safety of their employees with the need to keep the lights on.
“There are no rulebooks for this kind of stuff,” says John Bremen, managing director of human capital and benefits for advisory firm Willis Towers Watson. “This is really a new and evolving situation.”
Now that worldwide cases of COVID-19 are in the six figures and disease experts are warning the elderly and immune-compromised to avoid travel and crowds, we heard from workplace experts about the tough choices employers must make in the midst of the turmoil. Here, we answer some of the most asked questions about how to deal with a highly contagious virus at large.
How do you decide whether to place travel bans or have employees work from home?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health departments continue to offer guidance on this for employers, but this will also largely depend on where you operate and who your employees are. If you run a business with younger employees in a state with limited or no cases of COVID-19, you don’t need to send workers home immediately.
That said, if there are COVID-19 cases in your area, you have older or immune-compromised employees, or if your workers have traveled to a high-risk area, it may be smart to have employees work from home if they can. Nearly half (46%) of organizations are implementing remote work because of the epidemic, according to a recent survey from Willis Towers Watson.
If you’re going to encourage employees to work remotely, your IT departments should be prepared to provide laptops to those who need them or to set up technology so employees can access company systems from home. “The CDC and the state departments of health are trying to avoid large groups of people,” says Regina Morek, a human resources consultant in Ithaca, New York. “Employers might be testing out ways they can have core staff—not a large group—at the workplace and then others working from home.”
Regarding travel, many major employers (Amazon, Apple, Google) have restricted non-essential travel and have banned all travel to countries that have been hardest hit by COVID-19, such as China, Italy, South Korea, and Iran. Some 55% of companies are encouraging virtual meetings to decrease travel, and 47% have canceled planned conferences in certain countries, according to the Willis Towers Watson data. This has already had an impact on industries supported by business travel, such as hotels, event and conference planning, trains, and airlines.
And of course, it goes without saying that you should encourage all employees to stay home if they have any symptoms of illness.
How should you communicate company policy and developments to employees?
Employers should be using any and all channels to keep workers updated. “In times like this, I think overcommunicating is absolutely fine,” Morek says. She recommends communicating via email, via phone for those employees who don’t use their email or who don’t have access to email, and creating a special area on your website or intranet for COVID-19 employee updates.
Another option: Create a dedicated phone number employees can use to find out the status of the workplace. “Supervisors must listen to employees and allay fears, as best they can, by conveying knowledge and facts,” Morek says.
That goes for more general COVID-19 information as well. More than half (59%) of companies have organized communication campaigns geared toward preventing the spread of the disease. (Hint: Wash your hands.)
How should you handle absences due to COVID-19 quarantines or school closures?
How companies manage worker absences will vary depending on that employee’s vacation allotment, their duties, and their benefits in general. If a worker gets quarantined, for instance, but they can still work from home, they may not have to take any vacation or sick leave.
Some companies are also pledging to continue to pay hourly workers their regular wage even if their hours are reduced due to COVID-19. Uber is offering drivers and delivery workers 14 days of paid sick leave if they’re quarantined or ill due to the coronavirus, Olive Garden pledged this week to offer all hourly workers 40 hours of annual paid sick leave, and Walmart will provide two week’s paid sick leave without using their existing sick leave.
For employers of workers in the service, food, delivery or healthcare industries where human contact is necessary and/or the work can’t be done remotely, you must review PTO and sick leave policies. Workers are grappling with tough choices, trying to decide between working during the outbreak or losing pay if they don’t have paid sick leave.
In a recent Wall Street Journal report, HR consulting firm leader Arthur J. Gallagher said he anticipates companies will be willing to adjust their PTO policies due to the talent shortage many are experiencing. “With the tight labor market, most employers do not want to have to replace existing employees,” he said. “I do suspect we will see an increase in flexibility,” he said.
“Companies are trying to do what’s in the best interest of their employees,” Bremen says. “For some, [absence might be treated as] paid time off, for some it might be sick time, and for some, it might be short-term disability leave.”
You’ll want to be clear about your policies and what will happen if workers must go home for extended absences. “Does it qualify as paid family leave?” says Matthew Burr, a human resources consultant in Elmira, New York. “Are we paying people to try to get them through the hard times or is it unpaid? Are we accepting doctor’s notes? All that stuff needs to be hammered out.”
What policies and procedures should you employ to keep business running while following necessary protocols?
If you don’t already have a contagious disease policy or business continuity plan, now might be a great time to create one. “If employers neglected to implement a contagious disease policy during the West Nile or Ebola virus outbreaks, the severity of the coronavirus is all the impetus companies need to develop a written policy,” says Melissa Gonzalez Boyce, JD, legal editor of human resources site XpertHR. “Written policies help prevent the spread of disease by creating work rules that promote safety through infection control and minimize the negative impact of sudden emergencies.”
Likewise, a business continuity policy will guide business operations when decisions must be made quickly in a chaotic atmosphere. It might also outline a contingency plan for vital duties and functions if an important employee (or team) is too sick to work for an extended period.
It’s also important to practice and encourage empathy at a time of uncertainty and stress. This is especially true since fear about COVID-19 can lead to social stigma toward certain people or places. It can also result in stigma or avoidance of people who have been quarantined for the disease.
Employers can discourage negative behavior or beliefs with the following practices:
- Maintain the privacy of those who may be seeking healthcare for coronavirus
- Share accurate information and correct misinformation about how the virus spreads
- Speak out against negative behaviors, including negative information on social media about people or groups of people
- Share images responsibly and ensure that they do not reinforce stereotypes
- Thank healthcare workers and responders
Will this send us into a recession?
It’s early days for recession talk—and this situation is a new one for most players. “There are so many unknowns, and I think it’s very difficult to predict,” Bremen says. “I think everybody certainly hopes there’s a speedy resolution to it, and I think everybody would like to get back to business as usual. The question is how long it will be until that happens.”
In terms of government response, there have been talks of everything from a payroll tax cut to assistance to hourly workers, which indicates that these recession fears are felt broadly and different agencies are trying to mitigate damage and prepare for economic impacts.
In the meantime, keep in mind that recent job numbers were good and unemployment levels are still at record lows. “The markets are in panic mode right now, but I don’t think there are long-term repercussions,” Burr says. “The economy’s been doing very well. We’ve got to take it day by day and not overreact to some of the coverage.”
Where can you get the best, most up to date info about COVID-19?
To reduce the spread of the virus, the WHO and CDC suggest the following precautionary measures:
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a
- regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- If you have fever, cough or difficulty breathing, see medical care early.
- Stay informed and follow the advice given by your healthcare provider.
For the latest updates, here are the best resources for information on the coronavirus:
- CDC page on Coronavirus Disease 2019
- Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers
- Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations
- Comprehensive and Updated FAQs for Employers on the COVID-19 Coronavirus(Fisher Phillips, labor and employment attorneys)
- State Departments of Health
Has your workplace been impacted by coronavirus? We’d love to hear from you.