Legal

The role of businesses in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic

By Andie Burjek

Mar. 18, 2020

Workplace policies, benefits and culture can have a big impact on public health.

The basics of what employers can do to address the coronavirus is to allow employees to work from home and make sure they can access and afford the health care they need, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. 

COVID-19, coronavirus, public health crisisWhile many employers may be concerned about their bottom line and the loss of productivity, the reality is that loss will be even greater if employees come in sick, potentially with the coronavirus, Gould said. Passing this virus onto coworkers and the public is not good for the bottom line. 

Some research about the flu shows that employees having more sick days is linked to reduced contagion, she said. With the coronavirus, “it’s time to do that. It’s not even a big, bold thing to think about, giving people paid sick days when they’re sick. It is a smart move,” she said. 

Currently, even people with paid sick days don’t have enough days to recover from coronavirus, Gould said in her EPI blog “Amid COVID-19 outbreak, the workers who need paid sick days the most have the least.” 

“The United States is unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic given that many workers throughout the economy will have financial difficulty in following the CDC’s recommendations to stay home and seek medical care if they think they’ve become infected,” she wrote. “Millions of U.S. workers and their families don’t have access to health insurance, and only 30 percent of the lowest paid workers have the ability to earn paid sick days — workers who typically have lots of contact with the public and aren’t able to work from home.”

Many are calling for national paid sick leave, but the future of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act is still uncertain. 

“We know that national paid sick time is realistic in the sense that many industrialized countries provide for it,” said said Janie Schulman, partner in global law firm Morrison & Foerster’s  Employment + Labor group. However, “mandatory paid benefits in the U.S. have been and continue to be a politically divisive issue.”

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Also, in the U.S., there is always a question as to which matters are reserved to the states and which may be legislated at a federal level, she said. While the federal government has yet to enact a paid sick leave law, several states and some cities have done so in recent years. 

“It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 outbreak will create a paradigm shift at the federal level,” Schulman said. 

With employees staying home, one key issue that organizations have to deal with now is employee absenteeism, said Roberta J. Witty, research vice president at Gartner, Risk and Security Management Programs. They have to understand what their mission-critical business services are and determine how to staff them if they have a high-absenteeism rate. This may be done through cross-training, moving work from one location to another or other kinds or workload balancing. 

“For those business services where a face-to-face interaction is required, you might have to shut down some of those services due to best practices regarding controlling infection between people as outlined by the CDC,” Witty said. “Also, there may be a hard decision to be made – what is the minimum percentage of your volume you can support with a degraded workforce, and then shut down if you go below that level.” 

Businesses, like individuals, must cooperate in our generally accepted social contract that requires each of us to do our part in trying to limit the spread of disease for the overall public good, Schulman said. 

“[We have already seen businesses around the country step up and do more than they are legally required to do,” Schulman said  “Many of the steps we have seen businesses take in the past few weeks are not mandated by law, but rather demonstrate the proactive efforts of businesses to limit the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) to protect their employees and the public.” 

These steps include encouraging remote work, cancelling large public events, offering extra paid sick leave and limiting visitors coming to company premises, she said. 

Many of these tough calls will undoubtedly hurt businesses’ bottom line and affect productivity, revenue, profits, and stock price and may interfere with relationships with customers and vendors, she said.  In many of these cases, companies are weighing the costs of these short-term sacrifices against the potential long-term harm that would occur if they did not take these steps.

One effective best practice some companies are following is creating a pandemic team or crisis management team, said Tracy Billows, chair of law firm Seyfarth’s Chicago office Labor & Employment department. Team members —  which include individuals from many departments including HR, legal, health and safety, security, operations and finance — work together to create a holistic strategy. 

A pandemic team should also include the COO or CEO to give the team the leadership needed to and to ensure the committee is acting consistently with the company’s culture, policies and expectations, Billows said. 

Even companies with crisis management plans in place already may have a need for a committee. 

“I’ve worked with employers who have had pandemic plans and emergency response plans for years and, to be frank, they’re all updating them for this. The old rules are out the door. This is new. This is different. This is not the same thing we’ve dealt with before,” Billows said. 

Companies should be responsive to any Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates as well as local or state public health guideline updates, she said. 

“It’s important that employers show that they are staying up-to-date on the latest and update their policies and protocols accordingly,” she said. “It can feel like you need a dedicated team just to do that, but those who are doing so are being successful at it.”

To learn more about the recent legislation around COVID-19 and what it means to your organization, register for our free webinar, What HR Needs to Know about Coronavirus.

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at Workforce.com.

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