With the reopening of the economy on the horizon, employers are looking ahead to welcoming employees back to the traditional workplace. Business operations will look vastly different during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. In Part 2 of our Roadmap Series, we outline important operational planning steps and actions employers can take now to successfully and safely bring employees back to the workplace. Future posts in this series will address many of these issues more in-depth, so be sure to stay tuned.
Step 1: Designating a COVID-19 Task Force
Before any employees are brought back into the office or other physical work setting, employers should consider assembling an operational planning team to oversee the reopening of the workplace. Any such team or “task force” should include a cross-section from key functions across the company, including company leadership, human resources, operations, information technology and legal, as applicable. Companies can also consider appointing a designated “Chief COVID-19 Officer” or a similar leadership role, to lead the company’s efforts.
Below are examples of the issues that each of these functions will be facing:
Company Leadership – Implementing a plan from the top that demonstrates leadership buy-in will promote a swift and effective response company-wide. Leadership oversight is crucial during a time where plans will constantly change and approaches may vary depending on cities and states in which employees are located. A measured, flexible, and thoughtful plan will instill confidence in leadership.
Human Resources – Employees will face real and varied challenges returning to the workplace including childcare needs, healthcare issues, and safety concerns. Involving human resources to communicate with employees and address questions will build trust and comfort for employees. Human resources will also be on the forefront of updating workplace policies, procedures, and trainings.
Operations and Information Technology – Maintaining workplace safety will be the utmost concern for employers reopening the workplace. For example, employers will be required to meet social distancing standards, adjust physical layouts where necessary, and clean/disinfect workspaces and common areas. For those employees who continue to work from home, shoring up information technology and remote access will play an equally important role by making office setups less dense and ensuring productivity and security for teleworking employees.
Legal – Involving counsel, whether internal legal team members or outside counsel, will be crucial to navigate new and quickly-evolving legal issues. Legal teams should also be prepared to undertake a risk assessment and pinpoint workplace hazards that may implicate Occupational Safety and Health standards. OSHA’s guidance on preparing the workplace for COVID-19, and our blog post are helpful starting points.
The most important aspect of such a team or task force will be adaptability – employers will be facing an evolving health situation that will likely include disruptions and additional periods of social distancing. Preparing in advance for disruptions in operations will allow employers to pivot and maintain critical infrastructure when needed. Many employers have locations in multiple cities and states. Setting up an operational taskforce with company-wide oversight and access will assist in navigating various state and local laws in response to the pandemic. That way, the task force can tap supervisors or managers in various locations to synchronize communication and adjust an employer’s approach on the ground when necessary.
Step 2: Sourcing Protective Equipment – What Will Employers Need?
Employers will face requirements from state and local governments around providing personal protective equipment (“PPE”) to employees. Sourcing such equipment may prove difficult when all employers are reopening and attempting to secure materials at the same time. In New York, employers that cannot obtain the requisite amount of PPE for employees are encouraged to reach out directly to their jurisdiction’s emergency management office for supplies. Employers should anticipate similar resources soon available for other cities and states as employees return to the workplace.
Standards currently in place for essential businesses and workers are a helpful guidepost for how all employers should prepare to meet safety standards upon return. For example, as we described in this blog post, the New York State Department of Health issued guidance on required face coverings that must be provided at the employer’s expense. PPE includes face coverings (such as homemade cloth masks, N95 respirators and face shields), gloves, and, in certain circumstances, gowns. In New York, employees of essential businesses are permitted to use their own masks, but are not required to do so.
Employers must therefore prepare to distribute and set policy around the use of PPE. Equally as important as obtaining masks is a fluid policy that ensures uniform administration of PPE use (for example, when employees should don/doff masks, what happens if an employee refuses to where a mask, etc.). Such a policy should also provide for accommodations for individuals who cannot wear masks (for example, employees with preexisting respiratory conditions such as asthma).
Step 3: Seeking Outside Help – Researching and Retaining the Right Experts
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most employers likely did not regularly retain outside experts on employee health and wellness, office restructuring, workplace safety, etc. Nor do all employers have such expertise in-house. An important step for any operational taskforce to consider is where such expertise is needed. This is also an important step of risk assessment. Employers should consider obtaining services of some combination of the following:
Increased, Regular Cleanings – If employers were not rigorously disinfecting their workplace beforehand, doing so upon bringing employees back into an office or other worksite will be a necessary expense. The CDC has issued guidelines for businesses on how to properly clean and ventilate community spaces, particularly after a sick person has been in a confined space like an office.
Office Restructuring - Many office setups are not currently structured to practice safe social distancing. Traditional office layouts, such as cubicles or adjoined desks, may conflict with guidance on maintaining social distancing. Employers are encouraged to undertake space management assessments with qualified experts to determine how best to use an enclosed office space and still meet social distancing guidelines. As another example, employers will need to consider whether they provide requisite handwashing and/or hand-sanitizer stations, so that employees may regularly clean their hands.
Occupational Safety and Health Experts – The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has outlined risk levels for different categories of employees and how best to protect such workers in the above-mentioned guidance. Retaining a workplace safety expert to monitor and audit workplace reopening plans and safety steps will ensure employers are meeting applicable safety standards.
Nurses and Healthcare Consultants - Many employers with essential workforces have already implemented temperature taking onsite before employees enter the workplace. If a company is considering requiring temperature taking before entering the workplace, or requiring other sorts of testing/screening, employers may want to consider hiring healthcare consultants to provide such services in a safe, accurate manner. Efficiency in testing will be crucial to workplace productivity, and may implicate wage and hour issues for employers (more on that in a future post) – retaining healthcare experts up front may actually lessen costs for employers down the road.
Wellness Experts – Returning to the workplace will come with fears and anxieties for employees. If possible, employers should consider whether retaining wellness experts can assist their workforce with work disruptions, healthcare and childcare stresses, and adjusting to the “new normal” – whether working in the office or from home.
Step 4: Bringing Back Your Workforce – Issue-Spotting and Planning Now
The final and biggest step to reopening a workplace is how to physically bring employees back into the office. In forthcoming blog posts, we will detail strategies and planning steps employers can implement to successfully bring employees back. At this stage, employers should anticipate challenges they and their workforce will face when making the return. For example:
Commuting – Last week the Boston Globe reported that the crowded Boston subway of pre-pandemic times will not be back any time soon. Large swaths of employees rely on public transportation to reach the workplace every day. Employers must recognize that employees will face delays (think temperature checks, subway by “appointment”, breaks for disinfecting cars) when making their way into work each day. Work schedules may need to be adjusted to avoid crowded times on public transportation.
Caregiving Responsibilities – Many states, including Massachusetts, have suspended school altogether for the remainder of the year. Employees with school-age children will face childcare coverage issues and employees with other caregiving responsibilities, such as elder care, will continue to face challenges. These employees will look to employers for flexibility with leave and alternative work arrangements.
Healthcare – Even as employers begin to reopen their workplaces, vulnerable populations of employees will face fears of exposure to COVID-19 if they return to work. Following applicable safety guidelines will be play a large role in prioritizing employee health and welfare. However, employers should also be prepared to address requests for reasonable accommodations for employees at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus.
Staffing Needs – During the pandemic, many employers have had to lay off or furlough employees and sever third party worker arrangements. In addition to legal issues such as who is selected to return and when, employers will have to take practical steps to reinstate employees, such as connecting with payroll administrators and insurance providers. Temporary workers and independent contractors were some of the first workers to be severed from an employer’s workforce at the onset of the pandemic. Employers must assess staffing needs, and decide whether and when to reengage third party service providers when the office reopens.
Parting Thoughts & More to Come
Employers that take the time to plan now for workplace disruptions and potential setbacks will be in better shape to maintain business operations and keep employees safe in the months to come. Developing a COVID-19 operations infrastructure can help employers meet the many challenges once the office doors open. Next up in our Roadmap Series we delve into the intricacies and best practices for employee testing and screening, including insight from our Mintz Healthcare and Privacy colleagues.
Find more information from Mintz's COVID-19 Roadmap Series here:
Preparing for the New Workplace Paradigm Series: a Roadmap for Employers in the Time of COVID-19