For the last two months, the various lockdown orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have created unprecedented logistical and financial challenges for businesses across the US. Now, slowly but surely, many businesses will prioritize orchestrating the return to work as quickly — and safely — as possible.
Employers who are thinking about initiating (or who have already begun) the return to work process should only do so after they have devised a thorough strategy for maintaining a workplace that keeps employees safe.
The specifics of your strategy will necessarily depend on your business model, the structure and layout of your workplace, and applicable state and municipal laws and government orders. In other words, no two return to work strategies will look exactly alike.
But since this is a nationwide effort, there are certain federal guidelines that every employer should be aware of before they transition their employees back to the workplace. There are also several public health and safety recommendations that all organizations should keep in mind, regardless of the size of their workforce or the industry in which they operate.
Best practice is to follow official guidance and recommendations from government agencies for facilitating a safe and responsible return to work. This guidance comes from some acronyms you may be very familiar with by now, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Here's an overview of what that guidance is and where you can find it:
The CDC’s Resuming Business Toolkit is a resource designed to help employers slow the spread and limit the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace as you return to office settings. It's based on their Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers, so it's a good idea to review that information as well. Check back often for the latest information, as the CDC has continued to update this resource throughout the pandemic.
The CDC provides additional guidance on their Coronavirus (COVID-19) page. While it's not specific to employers, you may find it helpful when planning your return to work.
Keep in mind, many states have their own OSHA regulations as well.
OSHA released a document called Guidance on Returning to Work on June 18 that provides recommendations and descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards.
Their website also offers a ton of other information for employers, including industry specific return-to-work guidance.
Companies subject to OSHA reporting requirements should also review the Revised Enforcement Guidance on OSHA reporting relating to COVID-19. Keep in mind, many states have their own OSHA regulations as well.
Employers should be mindful that in creating return-to-work plans intended to keep employees and customers safe, you don’t unintentionally violate equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws, such as Americans with Disabilities Act and Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
The EEOC has created a guidance document to address this. Check back often, as this resource is being revised frequently.
The EEOC has also compiled additional relevant resources on their Coronavirus and COVID-19 page.
Currently, and once your team physically returns to work, your employees may be able to avail themselves of paid leave for certain circumstances precipitating out of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, your employees may be eligible for paid sick or family leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which took effect in April and will remain in effect until December 31, 2020.
The FFCRA has workplace posting requirements as well. We recommend that you review the DOL’s summary and FAQs regarding the FFCRA paid leave requirements. Also keep in mind that some states, like New York, have passed laws regarding COVID-related leave, and employees may also be eligible for paid or unpaid sick or family leave under various existing state and local laws. Be sure to consult your attorney about how these different laws interact to impact your business.
Strategies for combating the coronavirus have varied significantly between cities, counties, and states across the country. In light of that, business leaders should always make it a top priority to familiarize themselves with the stay-at-home orders, return-to-work and reopening plans, and other laws and ordinances that have been implemented wherever they have operations in place.
No two return to work strategies will look exactly the same.
For example, if your company headquarters are located in Seattle but you also have offices in, say, San Francisco and Atlanta, you’ll need to be aware of all of the return-to-work laws that are in effect in each of those cities, as well as their surrounding areas. Check out this handy COVID-19 State Reopening Guide to find more information about state-specific reopening plans and how they may impact your return-to-work plan. Additionally, Littler's state-by-state Employee Temperature and Health Screening list is a good resource to review for finding statewide orders that apply to your business.
There are certain safety measures you may want to consider implementing, even if they are not required by the laws that apply to your company. Again, keep in mind that no two workplaces are the same. A safety measure that’s practical in one office may not be so practical (or even possible) in another. In light of that, these tips should be read solely as recommendations, and you should always use your discretion when figuring out which policies will work well in your workplace:
Establishing a policy that details symptoms that would make it necessary for an employee to stay home, or expand your existing list to include coronavirus symptoms detailed by the CDC.
Implementing a system of regular temperature checks (before you do, make sure you understand the precautions and procedures involved).
Limiting the number of people that are allowed in common areas at any one time (and implementing other basic social distancing measures).
Making it mandatory that employees wear PPE (face masks, etc.) while at work.
Offering more flexible workday schedules and split shift options.
Providing personalized accommodations for employees based on their personal circumstances (some will have caregiving responsibilities, for example, or pre-existing medical conditions that put them at risk).
As you get ready to initiate the transition back to work, remember to keep these three crucial things in mind:
No two return to work strategies will look exactly the same.
Your return-to-work policies and procedures should reflect requirements and recommendations by local, state, and health authorities.
The health, welfare, and safety of your employees and their families should always come first.
You should also make it a priority to keep up — as much as you possibly can — with all COVID-19-related news. And you should be especially vigilant for any updates related to the return to work at the national, state, and local levels.
Of course, we understand that it can be a bit overwhelming trying to simultaneously stay on top of the news and manage a distributed workforce during a pandemic. That’s why we created the Guide to Navigating COVID-19, an online resource that can keep you and your team updated and informed. You can also count on us to continue to provide you with top-of-the-line employer best practices and management tips that will help you to navigate this unprecedented moment in history.
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