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Key topics featured in this blog

  • How to determine what phase of reopening your business is in the return-to-work process.
  • What needs to be in your return-to-work plan?
  • What are potential legal ramifications of your policies?

In much the same way the actual virus can vary in its impact on people’s health, COVID-19’s impact on the economy and various industries has forced many organizations to alter their operations monthly, weekly and sometimes daily. As vaccinations become more readily available, many are hopeful the economy will follow suit. However, as you prepare to fully reopen your organization, a number of challenges lie ahead, each of which requires a solid resolution before proceeding to avoid problematic operations (and potential litigation).

There are three critical questions businesses need to answer before it approaches a full reopening:

  1. What stage of the reopening process are you in and what must be done to move forward through each remaining step?
  2. Does your current business setup meet your needs moving forward?
  3. Will or will you not require your employees to be vaccinated before returning to work and what are the potential benefits and drawbacks of both approaches?

Discover the things your business should take into account to help find the answers to each.

DETERMINE WHAT PHASE OF REOPENING YOUR BUSINESS IS IN

Not every business is in the same phase of reopening, as different industries have been impacted in different ways by COVID-19. While many white-collar industries shifted to working remotely, those typically requiring people to be hands-on and physically present (retail, service, manufacturing, etc.) have remained on site.

This is why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued guidance on returning to work last May to help employers by outlining three phases of returning to work. These phases include:

  • Phase I: Making telework available with only the most essential staff present while limiting service options and customers on site.
  • Phase II: Telework remains available while allowing non-essential business travel and limitations eased.
  • Phase III: Unrestricted staffing returns.

Thus, if the majority of your workforce is still and/or needs to continue working remotely, your plan will be different than someone with a majority of staff on site. (See our previous post on managing remote workforce productively for more insight.)

This determination is essential to any and all planning moving forward. This includes establishing your policies on social distancing, mask mandates (in accordance with local, state and/or federal mandates), enforcement of said policies and timelines for progress back to their pre-pandemic state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has plenty of information to assist in this.

While every company should have established policies like these in place at this point, capturing them in a written document, which employees can easily refer to, will save time (and trouble) moving forward. Additionally, this allows employers to accommodate needs as they arise.

EVALUATE THE WAY YOU CONDUCT BUSINESS FOR CURRENT AND FUTURE NEEDS

Once you’ve determined your reopening phase, developing a plan for what your workplace will look like and seeing if any modifications are needed to current operations is crucial. It is much better to have contingencies in place for an outbreak or PTO should an employee need extended leave due to illness. Do you need curbside or touchless pickup points? Can your storefront or office be reconfigured that will be conducive to business and safety? Should we allow employees to have the option to continue to work from home even in a post-pandemic setting? These are important questions that should not only follow the determination of what phase you are in currently, but also shape how you will move forward to the next one.

Asking these sorts of questions is exactly what major companies like Google are doing as they begin their full return-to-work plans. Google has pushed its planned return to its Mountain View, Cali. offices back to September 2021. Employees can expect significant changes upon their return, including what Google is calling a “flexible” workweek requiring staff to be on site at least three days for “collaboration days.” Other organizations are creating flexible workspaces, where employees can rotate in and out of the office. This provides employees with a space for the days they chose to come into the office, while giving them the flexibility to work from home.

Finally, some organizations, particularly international ones, have found telecommunication technology to be efficient in conducting most business in the future. They also plan to leverage it to help reduce travel costs for their organizations and do not plan to resume the same level of business travel pre-pandemic, as a result.

These sort of schedules may not apply to employees who spend significant time with customers or working in data or call centers and labs, but as Bayer spokesperson Markus Siebenmorgen said recently “One thing is clear to us: We will not return to the old ways of working after the corona pandemic.”

COVID-19 VACCINES: MANDATORY, VOLUNTARY OR INCENTIVIZED?

Ever since they were first announced as approved by FDA emergency order, many have had the same question: Can employers require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine? The answer is “yes”, but the risk might outweigh the reward.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released updated information regarding employer vaccine questions, the gist of which is as follows: Employers may encourage or require COVID-19 vaccinations, but policies must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other workplace laws such as religious accommodations. As the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) warns, while requiring a vaccine for employment could result in legal issues, not requiring one could result in a lawsuit for failure to provide a safe and healthy work environment. (Don’t forget the EEOC allowed employers to make vaccines mandatory in 2009 during the H1N1 epidemic.) This is why following the EEOC’s guidance should be your first step before enacting any blanket policies or responding to complaints to determine what meets your needs.

One creative way companies are encouraging staff is by incentivizing staff to voluntarily seek vaccinations on their own. Dollar General recently announced it will offer four hours’ extra pay to any of its 157,000 employees who get vaccinated once they are readily available. Others like Target (through its in-house pharmacies) and Ford Motor Co. (which has ordered storage freezers) plan to offer vaccines to their employees if they desire them.  

THE BOTTOM LINE

The common thread in finding answers to all three questions is the same: When in doubt, err on the side of caution, examine the pros and cons of each possible action, and always remember your responsibilities to both your employees and clients/customers. Contact the experts at Erigo Employer Solutions should you have further human resource needs and learn how we can help you navigate through these uncertain times.