As of this writing, the Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. There are nearly 1700 cases in the US and 22 cases in Pennsylvania. That number is expected to continue to rise, particularly as testing protocols improve. On a local level, Pennsylvania has experienced multiple school and business closures, Maryland and Ohio have suspended public school classes, and in nearby Montgomery County all schools, gyms, and daycare centers have closed and officials are asking all non-essential businesses to offer paid sick leave and allow employees to work from home. Nationally, numerous resorts, theme parks and cruise lines are closed for business, the DOW experienced its worst drop since 1987, Broadway has gone dark, and March Madness has been canceled for the first time since its inception in 1939.
Whether you believe the response to COVID-19 is appropriate or overblown – the historic impact of the virus is undeniable, and it appears increasingly certain that efforts to contain and address it will have a measurable impact on businesses and employers of all sizes in the coming weeks and months.
Employers Should Move Quickly
To prepare, employers should move quickly to establish rational, practical, and effective policies and protocols to address this evolving challenge.
The CDC, OSHA and the Pennsylvania Department of Health have offered guidance that continues to be updated regularly. Links to this guidance are below for easy reference. In light of the steady flow of updates and communications related to the virus, we recommend employers designate someone internally to monitor and evaluate updated guidance on a regular basis to ensure the employer is able to respond promptly when additional action is required.
At this point, in addition to reviewing the current guidance referenced above and continuing to monitor the situation, employers should be immediately evaluating and implementing the following measures where appropriate:
· Maintain open lines of communication with employees at all levels of the organization regarding:
· Updated and current CDC data regarding basic COVID-19 properties and protocols;
· Measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including basic respiratory etiquette and hygiene protocols; and
· The need for all employees who have respiratory symptoms or fever and/or those who have had contact with an infected person stay home from work.
· Develop interim, flexible leave policies which will allow affected employees to stay home without fear of discipline or job loss.
· Train management to allow them to effectively identify, separate, and send home any employees who attempt to work with apparent respiratory symptoms.
Note: Yes – you can and should send employees home who exhibit symptoms.
· Evaluate options for offering additional paid leave to employees impacted by the virus.
· While there has been increasing discussion of legislation requiring paid leave at the federal and/or state level, employers who are able to offer additional paid leave now should consider doing so.
· Take proactive steps to minimize employee-to-employee contact and avoid unnecessary contact with the public.
This may take many forms, but may include:
· Replacing non-essential face-to-face employee and client meetings with phone or video conferences;
· Cancelling or postponing planned group business or social gatherings;
· Consider staggering shifts or modifying workflows to minimize direct contact.
· Ensure work from home options are in place wherever possible, and be prepared to implement such measures as needed.
· Consider expanding such options to non-exempt employees (for whom it has been historically discouraged due to wage and hour concerns) on an interim, emergency basis – with the understanding that meticulous timekeeping is required and the arrangement is likely temporary.
· Clean and disinfect common areas regularly and provide appropriate disinfecting products for use in personal work areas.
· While the CDC is currently recommending “routine” cleaning, proactive employers will institute more frequent and rigorous cleaning procedures to reduce the risk of the virus spreading due to workplace surface contamination.
· Ask (or require) employees to avoid non-essential travel to areas identified as high risk and/or those known to have confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Communicate with Employees
Despite the availability of guidance regarding COVID-19 on the internet and through news outlets, employers should not assume that employees are regularly accessing this information, nor should they assume they are aware of the employer’s willingness to accommodate affected employees.
Employees who fear disciplinary action or loss of pay for missing work are likely to attempt to hide their illness and work in spite of any symptoms or contact. As such, it is important for employers to communicate with employees regarding their plans for addressing COVID-19-related absences and provide a clear and consistent message that they will remain flexible as the situation evolves.
Paid Leave Options
To date, there have been a number of federal and state proposals regarding paid leave options, payroll tax forgiveness, paid testing and medical care for the uninsured, etc. through legislative or other executive action. Some states have already moved to eliminate waiting weeks for unemployment compensation benefits, and others have or are considering paid leave initiatives of their own. As of this date, such measures have not been enacted on a national basis or in Pennsylvania, but we anticipate that things will continue to move quickly and so employers should continue to monitor.
CGA Law Firm will be working continuously to remain abreast of these developments as the COVID-19 situation evolves and will provide updates as needed to keep employers informed. Our labor and employment attorneys are also available to provide answers to more specific and detailed questions, assist with drafting employee communications, policies, and procedures, and provide legal guidance as employers address and respond to the challenges ahead.