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Answers to Your 12 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Work During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Summer Intern
March 19, 2020

Many organizations are seeking advice on how to handle both the general and specific issues they are experiencing regarding the coronavirus pandemic. In a number of cases the general response does not fit since every employer has different needs. In these cases, our one-on-one consulting with clients is the best way to work through these specific issues and questions.

Having said that, we are fielding a number of consistent questions and we want to share them with you.

Employee Relations and Issues

Q. We’ve had many questions about handling issues with employees, whether it’s responding to employees when they are concerned with coming to work (although they have no symptoms or no contact with others with symptoms), to handing issues when employees don’t want to come into contact with customers or fellow employees, and others at all.

A. Many of these questions are best handled on a case-by-case basis since different industries like healthcare and manufacturing, have different requirements and considerations as compared to a service-related industry. We have recommended that in all cases to be as flexible as possible in working with employees through this difficult time. We remain committed and available to work with clients in answering questions.

Sick Employees

Q. What are my options with a sick employee?

A. For those employers with offices and facilities that are still open, as CDC guidelines indicate, sick employees should stay home. Employees experiencing coronavirus symptoms – fever, sore throat, cough, body aches, chills, fatigue, may not have coronavirus. Even so they are sick and transmitting any sickness to other employees. This situation is not advisable.

As in other similar situations, an employer’s paid time off program should be used.

Q. What if an employee with symptoms, who has not been tested for coronavirus, reports to work?

A. Many will have the virus and won’t be tested; others may come into contact with people who may or may not have been tested. The point is that employees should stay home, seek treatment and recover as soon as possible. Employers should utilize their paid time off programs.

Q. We are reading a lot about checking employee’s temperatures before they are allowed into work. Can we do this?

A. The EEOC has classified this as a medical examination and covered with the ADA. But, with the various executive orders and the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring coronavirus as a world pandemic, temperature checks can be administered.

“Generally, measuring an employee’s body temperature is a medical examination. If pandemic influenza symptoms become more severe than the seasonal flu or the H1N1 virus in the spring/summer of 2009, or if pandemic influenza becomes widespread in the community as assessed by state or local health authorities or the CDC, then employers may measure employees’ body temperature. However, employers should be aware that some people with influenza, including the 2009 H1N1 virus or COVID-19, do not have a fever.”
EEOC

Because the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions as of March 2020, employers may measure employees’ body temperature. As with all medical information, the fact that an employee had a fever or other symptoms would be subject to ADA confidentiality requirements.

Employees with Children – School Closings

Q. We have employees with children and their schools are now closed. What are our options?

A. Many schools, daycare facilities, preschools and other educational institutions have closed. In some states or municipalities, they have been ordered to close. When possible, employers should consider the ability to work virtually when appropriate. For those employees whose jobs cannot be done virtually, employers should consider, if at all possible, assigning employees other work at their facility such as cleaning and maintenance, painting, etc. without violating any orders. Employers can utilize their paid time off programs and other variable work options outlined below can also be considered.

Variable Work Options

Q. What variable work options can we consider for our employees?

A. Clearly, virtual or telework has been instituted in many organizations to reduce the transmission and spread of the virus, as well as allowing work to continue.

And, there are other solutions, for example:

  • Staggered work scheduling – a smaller percentage of employees work each day in a staggered fashion, and others remain at home and/or work virtually. Utilizing the organization’s paid time off programs in concert with this solution can be effective.
  • Reduced Hours – reduce employee’s weekly hours from 40 to 32 for example, and supplement with paid time off. This can extend the unfortunate potential of laying employees off.

Paid Time Off

Q. Do we just follow our current paid time off (sick, vacation, etc.) programs? Is there assistance coming from the federal and state governments?

A. In the short-run employers should certainly follow their paid time off programs and consider “liberalizing” these programs to allow for employees to use them, especially in situations where they typically would not be allowed. Examples:

  • Allowing employees to use vacation time for sick reasons.
  • Suspending requirements around employees providing medical certification, since this will be difficult to do.
  • Suspending other requirements such as:
    • Allowing the use of paid time off that has not yet been earned or accrued without going over the full accrual the program allows.
    • Not allowing new employees to use paid time off prior to completing an introductory or probationary period.
    • Advanced request and approval requirements for paid time off usage.
    • Extending carry-over timeframe requirements as to using any 2019 paid time off carryover until later this year.
    • Eliminating any resignation or termination requirements to the payout of paid time off if layoffs happen.

With regard to aid coming from the federal or state government, see my blog regarding Congressional coronavirus aid in-process.

  • Employers should consider adding one or two additional weeks of paid time off to their current program. Many organizations have already done this – Amazon, Home Depot, Chipotle, McDonald’s and Starbucks to name a few. For organizations with no program, consider adding paid time off. Organizations will likely receive a reimbursement coming from the federal government based on the current pending legislation.

Unemployment

Q. If we furlough employees one or two days, are they allowed to receive unemployment of some sort?

A. Employees/former employees are eligible to apply for unemployment benefits when their work has been either reduced or terminated. This is a Connecticut Department of Labor Q&A regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

Q. If we layoff employees are there regulations we need to follow?

A. Some employers are governed in this respect by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. If employers are covered under the WARN Act they should follow these requirements.

Q. What is the best way to communicate with our employees?

A. Employers should have an overall communication strategy and plan in maintaining a constant flow of communications with their employees. Depending upon the employer, industry technology platform, etc. employers should employ a number of modes:

  • Telephone
  • E-mail
  • Texting
  • Other virtual communication modes such as Skype and Zoom

Set-up daily calls or virtual meetings to deliver information, ask for feedback around current challenges and answer questions. In all cases, over-communicating is better than under-communicating.

Q. Should we consider employees doing different types of work if the need presents itself?

A. Yes. Employers can utilize any contingency approach where cross-training can fill gaps from sick employees or employees with children home from school. This ensures that workflow can continue with a potentially smaller workforce.

Virtual Hiring

Q. We are continuing to hire new people. Under the circumstances what is the best approach for us to continue this without doing it face to face?

A. Certainly, employers can utilize Skype, Zoom and other meeting and communication applications to conduct interviewing. When it’s time to hire, many employers have transitioned to a virtual onboarding approach utilizing, in many cases, their current payroll provider’s virtual onboarding module. Employers can work with their payroll provider to “turn on” this module. In the interim, employers can have the required forms scanned and e-mailed to the new-hire and have the employee complete the forms, scan and e-mail them back. Scanning applications are available to download to a smart phone for this purpose.

Nick Daukas

Nick Daukas

Author

With 25+ years of HR experience Nick specializes in ER, OD, Recruitment and Legal Compliance. He has an MBA and holds advanced HR certifications SPHR, SHRM-SCP.

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