Companies should understand how to protect their employees and customers, and also be aware of new government action related to COVID-19.
This article was published on March 20, 2020
The World Health Organization has designated the Coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expect to see more confirmed cases in the days ahead. It’s time for small and medium-sized businesses to know how they can best protect their employees and customers, and what new government policies are on tap to contain the disease.
As with any crisis affecting the workplace, protecting workers during the COVID-19 pandemic is falling on many HR professionals. But HR leaders don’t have to navigate this alone; they can look to credible sources such as:
- Society for Human Resource Management
- United States Small Business Administration
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce
For starters, the SBA announced that health and government officials are working together to maintain everyone’s health and safety. The agency encourages businesses to do what they can to protect their employees and customers during the pandemic.
What SMBs can do now
The sober reality for many SMBs is whether to cut hours, allow employees to work from home, disinfect the entire workplace, or even shut down indefinitely based on how COVID-19 goes. How SMBs decide to handle the virus likely depends on their size, industry, and a host of other factors, but all businesses can help mitigate the spread of the disease and the potential economic losses it’s generating.
The SBA offers interim guidelines based on recommendations from the CDC’s Guidance for Business and Employers. By now, many businesses are likely aware that basic CDC precautions include:
- Encouraging employees who feel ill to stay home
- Warning employees against handshaking and touching their face
- Communicating to employees the need for handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes
- Isolating sick employees from healthy employees
- Routinely cleaning and disinfecting the work environment
- Advising employees to curtail travel, according to the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices
How SMBs decide to handle the virus likely depends on their size, industry, and a host of other factors, but all businesses can help mitigate the spread of the disease and the potential economic losses it’s generating.
Compliance issues to consider
How SMBs communicate COVID-19 to their workers could impact the way the virus continues. However, in the process, businesses can’t afford to overlook employment mandates that protect workers. For example — falsely pointing to China as the initial source of the virus could incite discriminatory behavior against workers of Chinese descent.
The pandemic also raises questions about workers’ ability to do their jobs based on their medical condition. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees with a physical disability if they can perform the essential functions of a job, with or without assistance. Also, the ADA can require employers to provide protected workers with reasonable accommodation, if it doesn’t present a hardship for the business.
The Fair Labor Standards Act is another federal mandate for SBOs to consider, especially if they plan to extend their operating hours or allow hourly workers to telecommute during the pandemic. The law requires employers to keep accurate records of nonexempt employees’ hours and pay them overtime at a rate of no less than 1.5 times their base pay for every hour they work beyond a 40-hour week.
SMBs also should consider other government mandates on the federal, state, and local levels that the pandemic might impact.
When working remotely makes sense
The severity of COVID-19 is driving more businesses to shorten their hours or take more drastic steps, such as laying off staff or shutting down indefinitely. A more immediate response to the virus for some businesses is allowing some employees to work from home.
However, telework isn’t a suitable option for all types of work; retailers, restaurants, fulfillment centers, and municipalities have jobs that require being on-site. To minimize the health risk to on-site workers and the community in general, some establishments are closing their doors to the public and limiting their operations to pickup and delivery services.
Telework is more common at large companies because of the preference for flexible work hours among many of today’s employees, and technology that makes remote work possible. But for businesses looking to set up work-from-home arrangements in the wake of COVID-19, the first step is deciding if the move is appropriate and without restriction.
Creating a work-from-home policy
Attorney Joseph J. Lazzarotti, a principal in the Morristown, New Jersey office of Jackson Lewis P.C., writes in an article for the National Law Review that employers should review their resources and existing policies to make sure remote work is right for their business.
He recommends reviewing:
- Company policies
- Customer agreements
- Insurance coverage, such as employee benefits, workers compensation, and cybersecurity protection
If the review clears the way for a telework program, businesses can begin drafting a work-from-home policy. SHRM has an 8-part telework sample policy that SMBs can download and customize. The format allows employers to define the program’s objective, worker eligibility, telework procedures, equipment requirements, and security and safety criteria.
Lazzarotti also recommends that work-from-home programs include:
- A supportive IT infrastructure. Companies should be ready to address employees’ system and equipment needs.
- Open and effective communication. Remote workers should receive clear and consistent messages from managers, know where they can go for help with technical and other problems, and learn how to set up and maintain a safe work area.
- Data privacy and security. Employers should provide employees with secure laptops, allow them to access computer systems through a VPN or other secure connections, and require two-factor authentication.
Legislative proposals and SMB funding under way
As lawmakers look for ways to fight and stop the spread of COVID-19, new legislative proposals will likely emerge that impact the workplace. One such bill is the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (HR-6201), which both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed and the president signed into law.
The measure will provide Americans with:
- Free testing for COVID-19
- Extra funding for nutrition programs
- Protections for healthcare workers and those responsible for cleaning environments
- Additional Medicaid funds
The new legislation also protects workers by offering:
- Paid leave for emergencies (exempts employers with more than 500 workers)
- Expanded unemployment insurance
COVID-19 prompted Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), along with Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) to introduce the P.A.I.D. Leave Act, which would extend paid sick time and paid family and medical leave to all employees.
It’s expected that businesses will face severe economic hardships from COVID-19. Therefore, the SBA will offer up to $2 million in disaster assistance loans to SMBs affected by the pandemic. States and territories will distribute the funds as low-interest loans.