As widespread as the pandemic-related shutdowns were in March and April, companies are currently working with much more latitude to bring employees back into offices and facilities.
The return is hardly uniform and varies greatly across businesses and industries.
While some businesses allow for extended remote-work setups, others require at least a portion of the workforce to be in person on a regular basis.
Employers looking for the best way forward should consider a mix of safety precautions, alternative work configurations and communication.
That was the topic of a recent BOK Financial®-hosted webinar, featuring Melanie Pate, a labor and employment lawyer with Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP; Jean Gage, a legal manager with CopperPoint Insurance Companies; and Jesse Lisson, a broker development executive with Teladoc.
The panelists shared their insights on five key issues:
1. Establish workplace testing and screening.
This is a given, Pate said, and employers generally have two options:
- Daily tests or screening, which must be reliable and accurate and may include temperature checks and questionnaires about symptoms or
- Periodic self-reporting symptom checks, which won’t identify all infected employees, but is more cost-effective.
Pate explained that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) has determined that COVID-19 testing is job-related and consistent with business necessity for almost every single type of business area. “So COVID-19 testing can be broadly done without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she said.
2. Set exposure guidelines.
There’s a high likelihood that at some point, screening or testing will turn up a positive case in your company.
“Given confidentiality rules, you cannot announce a positive test for the coronavirus,” Pate said. You may, however, inform employees that there’s been a positive test in the facility and identify the employee’s job duties, as well as the general location of the employee’s workspace.
Those who test positive must stay at home until they’ve gone three days without a fever, all symptoms have improved and 10 days have passed since they first noticed symptoms. Those who test positive but are asymptomatic must stay out for 10 days; those exposed to someone who tested positive must self-quarantine for 14 days.
Pate added that a number of leave options may be tapped, including those provided under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which is available through Dec. 31, 2020, for employers with 500 employees or less.
3. Apply preventative measures at work.
Companies may require employees to wear masks, gloves and any other personal protective equipment (PPE) deemed necessary. Other instructions may include:
- Encouraging virtual meetings
- Limiting the number of employees allowed to attend in-person meetings
- Encouraging a six-foot personal buffer
- Restricting outside visitors
- Encouraging employees to get flu shots
Companies may also choose to reconfigure workspaces to better allow for distancing, improve air circulation and provide supplies to regularly clean shared materials and equipment.
4. Workers’ comp works at home.
Even with people returning to work, a year from now as many as 30% of workers will still be working from home multiple days a week, according to research from Global Workplace Analytics.
Gage explained that workers’ compensation coverage extends to home-based workspaces, depending on the work-from-home agreement between the employer and employee.
Injuries sustained at home are subject to the same questions asked in the workplace:
- What was the employee doing at the time of the injury?
- What were the circumstances surrounding the accident?
“If an employee is injured while performing work in a place and at a time that they are expected to be working, an injury would be covered by workers’ comp,” Gage said.
She added that while some individuals have won claims related to travel to or from a home office, explicit COVID-19 coverage is unlikely, primarily because it’s challenging to prove where the exposure happened.
5. Don’t brush off mental health issues.
The breadth and depth of the pandemic is weighing heavily on America’s workforce. Lisson reported that nearly half of respondents in a May 2020 Teladoc survey said their mental health has been negatively affected by COVID-19.
“Behavioral health is generally thought of as a nice to have,” Lisson said. “But that’s really changed, and it seems like it has a lot to do with COVID-19 and a number of celebrities opening up about anxieties and depression.”
He added that virtual healthcare, including mental health services, has emerged as a viable option for many, as Teladoc’s network saw about half of 2019 volumes in the first quarter of 2020 alone.
Such care is invaluable for employees who continue to find concerns overwhelming; however, as Pate explained “the legal rationale is that there is no protection for employees who choose not to come to work during this COVID period of time simply because they are anxious about returning to work.”
Empathy and flexibility are invaluable.
Employers should determine how to best support their employees and to tap all of the resources their business insurance coverage and wellness plan provides.
“Tools like the employee assistance plan, virtual behavioral healthcare and providing proper PPE can help employees transition back into the workplace if they’re feeling anxious,” said Nathan Guerrero, an employee benefits specialist with BOK Financial Insurance.
PPE expenses may be covered by your medical insurance wellness fund and other assistance could be forthcoming from a number of relief measures under consideration by Congress.
“It’s a great time for employers to diligently review their insurance policies and renewal documents,” said Kathy DeGrandchamp, a BOK Financial Insurance operations manager. “Your agent or broker will know if any changes to your policy coverage have arisen out of COVID-19.”
And don’t forget to keep your people in the loop, Pate advised.
“Employers should regularly communicate with employees about revised policies and directives,” she said. “Employees who feel that their employer cares about their health and safety are less likely to complain.”