Workplace Culture

What HR and employers need to know about coronavirus

By Rick Bell

Mar. 31, 2020

Jon Hyman, author of Workforce.com’s “The Practical Employer” blog and a partner at law firm Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland, hosted a special webinar March 26 regarding the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the workforce. The webinar was co-hosted by Workforce.com Chief Revenue Officer Paul Smith, who provided information regarding Workforce.com’s free GPS Clock-in Tool and a chat app to those affected by COVID-19.

Following are highlights from the presentation, which drew more than 1,900 participants and elicited some 290 questions.

You can access an on-demand presentation of the webinar here. 

Hyman covered a broad range of crucial workplace topics, including:

  1.  Telecommuting and remote work.
  2. Paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
  3. Closures, Mass Layoffs and the WARN Act.
  4. Travel and other work restrictions.
  5. Employee medical screenings.
  6. Free tools available to improve the safety and efficiency of organizations during the COVID-19 crisis.

Hyman began his presentation by discussing an issue that many employers find themselves dealing with for the first time: a remote workforce. He laid out a number of considerations for telecommuting and remote work policies.

Telecommuting and Remote Work

coronavirus, COVID-19

  • Eligibility and who should work remotely.
  • Employee responsibilities and expectations (e.g., work hours, timekeeping, accessibility, secure remote access procedures, and work expenses).
  • Employer responsibilities (e.g., technical support, equipment, and expense reimbursement).
  • Defining job duties, work area and break times.
  • All employer policies, including electronic communications policies, remain in effect (heightened need to maintain cybersecurity protocols).
  • Consider implementing a formal telecommuting agreement for longer-term assignments.

Paid Family and Sick Leave: The Families First Coronavirus Response Act

The Act, which goes into effect on Tuesday, April 1, amends the definition of “employee” to anyone who has been employed by an employer for at least 30 days. Hyman added that the act also changes the definition of “employer” from “50 or more employees” to “fewer than 500 employees.”

Regarding paid family and medical leave, Hyman said The Families First Coronavirus Response Act also:

  • Provides leave to care for a minor child of an employee if the school or place of care has been closed, or the care provider of such child is unavailable due to coronavirus precautions.
  • Defines an “inability to work” during a childcare-related leave to include an inability to telework.
  • Provides leave after the first 10 days of any coronavirus-related family leave to be paid in an amount that is not less than two-thirds of an employee’s regular rate of pay for the number of hours the employee would have worked.
  • Caps the amount of paid FMLA at $200 per day, or $10,000 in the aggregate. It requires job restoration following any such leave for any employee of an employer with 25 or more employees.
  • Discrimination and retaliation also is PROHIBITED.

Regarding paid sick leave, The Families First Coronavirus Response Act will provide 80 hours of paid sick leave for full-time employees (or pro rata for part-time employees) who are unable to work or telework for the following reasons:

  • The employee is quarantined or self-isolating because of coronavirus concerns.
  • The employee is experiencing symptoms of coronavirus and seeking a medical diagnosis.
  • The employee is caring for an individual who is quarantined or self-isolating because of coronavirus concerns.
  • The employee is caring for a child whose school or place of care has been closed, or the care provider is unavailable due to coronavirus precautions.

The amount of paid sick leave is capped as follows:

  • $511 per day and $5,110 in the aggregate for an employee’s own illness or quarantine.
  • $200 per day and $2,000 in the aggregate for any other qualifying reason.

The amount of paid sick leave also is capped as follows:

  • If an employer already offers paid sick leave to its employees, coronavirus paid sick leave must be in addition to the already-existing leave.
  • An employer cannot force employees to use other leave first.
  • An employer can amend its sick leave policy to avoid offering additional leave.
  • Tax credit to defray employer costs, but limited for the self-employed.
  • Possible exemptions for health-care workers and small employers (less than 50 employees).
  • Discrimination and retaliation is PROHIBITED.

Closures, Mass Layoffs and the WARN Act

Hyman then addressed The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN Act, of 1988. He noted that it:

  • Covers employers with 100 or more employees.
  • Applies to plant closures (a shutdown of a facility or operating unit within a single site of employment with a layoff of 50 or more employees), and mass layoffs (500 or more employees or 50-499 employees if one-third of the workforce).
  • Requires 60 days’ advance written notice, or 60 days’ pay in lieu of notice.
  • KEY EXCEPTION: Unforeseeable business circumstances before a shutdown.
  • KEY EXCEPTION: Layoffs of an expected duration of less than 6 months.
  • Some states and municipalities have their own specialized WARN requirements.

Meetings, Travel and Other Workplace Restrictions

Hyman offered up some recommended guidelines for best practices regarding sick employees. While these aren’t law, they are best practices.

  • Sick employees must stay home.
  • Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness must not come to work until they are fever- and symptom-free for 24 hours.
  • Do not require a health care provider’s note for employees who are out sick, as they are stretched thin.
  • Be flexible to permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member.
  • If someone comes to work sick, immediately separate them and send them home.
  • If someone in an employee’s household tests positive, the employee is also to be quarantined for 14 days.
  • Hang posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene. 
  • Perform routine environmental cleaning.
  • Consider holding all meetings by teleconference or videoconference unless essential to meet in person.
  • Consider prohibiting non-employee visitors.
  • If possible, consider closing offices or facilities, or rotating employees to enable better social distancing in the workplace.
  • No gatherings of more than 10 people.
  • All overseas travel should be temporarily halted.
  • Consider halting all domestic travel, or at a minimum, domestic air travel.
  • Any travel should be for mission-critical trips only, and only upon pre-approval of an employee’s manager and human resources.
  • Require a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone returning from any travel, whether work-related or personal.

Workplace Medical Screenings and Exams: Medical Exams Under the Americans With Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits an employer from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees, except under limited circumstances. 

During employment, the ADA prohibits employee disability-related inquiries or medical examinations unless they are job-related and consistent with business necessity or unless an employee will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition.

Hyman pointed out that it is important to note that the ADA likely will not apply during a pandemic.

During a pandemic, an employer may:

  • Send home employees who exhibit coronavirus symptoms.
  • Ask employees if they are experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms.
  • Take its employees’ temperatures to determine whether they have a fever.
  • Ask employees who have traveled if they may have been exposed.
  • Encourage employees to telecommute.
  • Require employees to adopt good hygiene habits such as regular hand washing.
  • Require employees to wear personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves or gowns.
  • Ask employees why they have been absent from work, even if the employer suspects a medical reason.

 During a pandemic, an employer MAY NOT:

  • Compel all employees to obtain vaccinations regardless of their medical conditions or their religious beliefs.
  • Ask employees who do not have coronavirus symptoms to disclose whether they have an underlying medical condition that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says could make them especially vulnerable to coronavirus complications.

Finally, Hyman summarized his talk by simply adding that for employers, “Flexibility matters … a lot.”

Use common sense and practice safety measures and understand that like employers, employees are dealing with unprecedented measures at home and at work, as well.

Improving the safety and communication in your organization.

Workforce.com Chief Revenue Officer Paul Smith then discussed the crucial role that safety and communications plays in organizations. 

What common surfaces are all your employees touching? Smith said a common example is kiosk time clocks. All hourly workers have to touch it, and it’s not always possible to enforce cleanliness rules. 

Are they wiped after every touch? What if the wipes run out? Smith said there is an alternative that offers safety and cleanliness: mobile time clocks. He pointed out features of a mobile time clock that includes: 

  • Use employees’ mobile number.
  • No cross contamination concerns.
  • Facial recognition available.
  • GPS & Geo-fencing for location tracking.
  • Works on Apple and Android devices.
  • Remote employees get notifications.

Regarding communications, Smith also asked if teams are communicating effectively and efficiently? One example of inefficient communications is email and texting overload.

  • Managers send so many emails and texts that teams often miss things.
  • Employees are then left not knowing where to check for very important alerts.
  • Simple schedule or shift changes will require long, complicated messages with multiple people.
  • Ineffective communication often results in incomplete records of communication for fair workweek compliance or union agreements.

There is an alternative to avoid inefficient, poor communication: Workforce.com Mobile Chat.

Features will:

  • Improve communication with an entire workforce.
  • Efficiently communicate and record all messages.
  • Mobile messages will arrive instantly.
  • Work on Apple and Android devices.

Smith concluded the webinar by saying  that Workforce.com is offering both of these tools for free to new sign-ups during the COVID-19 crisis, adding that organizations can be up and running in one to two days.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email editors@workforce.com.

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