Coronavirus - An Employer's Guide

By VICKY BROWN

With the emerging developments related to the spread of the Coronavirus, are you at a loss trying to figure out what it may mean to your employees, and your business.  You’ve got questions – We’ve got answers.

An infectious disease outbreak, such as the current coronavirus, can be scary – for your family, friends – and your employees.  In this overview, we’re going to focus on how you and your business can deal with a possible pandemic.

#1 Clean your workspaceAccording to the World Health Organization, contamination on surfaces is one of the main ways the virus spreads.  Make sure you provide disinfectant spray and/or wipes so that surfaces and objects like phones, keyboards etc. can be wiped down regularly

And keep them in multiple locations, like conference rooms, near common area printers, and at workstations.

#2 Promote good personal hygiene.  It sounds really basic, but hand washing is one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of illness.  Always encourage regular and thorough hand-washing – hot soap and water for at least 20 seconds (that’s the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice, or you can sing the ABC song once all the way through).  Singing along may feel weird, but it makes sure your hands are clean.

Put up posters reminding everyone to wash their hands often.  And remind them to avoid touching their face, nose and mouth – this is a really bad habit I’ve developed.  We all have to just stop it – this habit is the Postmates of germ delivery.

Using soap and water is the most effective method to be sure your hands are clean, but in a pinch you can also provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers.  But make sure it’s at least 60% alcohol, otherwise it does no good at all.

And remember, it’s not just employees – this advice goes for contractors and temps as well as customers.  And if you are in an industry where your employees are required to be in close contact with customers, think about providing gloves or other protective gear.

#3 Practice respiratory etiquette.  If someone develops a runny nose or cough at work, have face masks or paper tissues available.  By the way, according to the CDC, face masks should be used by people who show symptoms, to help prevent the spread of the disease to others.  But they do not recommend that people who are not sick wear a facemask.

“[the Centers for Disease Control does] not recommend that people who are not sick wear a face mask.”

#4 Be cautious when traveling.  Depending on the location, and method of travel, you may want to consider suspending business travel for a while

If you or your employees are traveling, get the latest information on hot zones (check out the World Health Organization’s Situation Reports)

Take the time to assess the benefits and risks related to any travel plans

Remind employees who are traveling, to frequently wash their hands.  And let everyone know that the World Health Organization suggests you stay at least 3-4 ft away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.  Also, make sure they know what to do if they feel ill while traveling – do you provide travel insurance and emergency medical coverage outside the US?  What about transporting the person back to the states in case of medical emergency.?  There are a number of companies that provide this type of coverage.  Check with your insurance broker for more information.

Once the person returns from traveling, if they develop even a mild cough or low grade fever, the World Health Organization recommends they should stay home, self-isolate and contact their doctor or local public health department.

#5 Stay home when you’re sick.  Actively encourage your employees to stay home if they’re sick or feel un-well.  And, if someone appears to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (such as coughing or shortness of breath), send them home

If someone becomes ill at work with suspected symptoms of the virus, have a plan in place to separate them and limit the number of people who have contact with them, and then contact the local health authorities.

Stress with your employees that they also should stay home and notify their supervisor, if they have a family member that shows any signs of virus symptoms.

Of course, this all means you have to take a close look at your sick leave policies, and maybe even adjust them to have the right level of flexibility.  For instance, the CDC suggests that you don’t require a doctor’s note for an employee who is sick with acute respiratory illness – either to put them out sick or to allow them to return to work.  Also, you may decide to pay for sick days, even if the employee has used up all their available sick time.  Since this is all a bit of a break from the usual standards around managing sick leave, run any policy decisions by legal counsel before you move forward.

#6 Working from home. Encouraging employees to stay home when they’re sick brings up the question of working from home.  If you don’t currently have policies, or aren’t set up for remote workers, it’s a good idea to start thinking about that now.  If you have 1 or 2 people out, other members of your team may be able to take up the slack.  But if you have half the team gone, the work will still need to get done – what alternative do you have in place?

It isn’t just working from home – you need to make sure that your systems and vendors are prepared to handle the load.  Do employees have computers at home, can they VPN into your server, are your critical documents stored in the cloud for easier access.  What about your eMail, is it cloud based or do you need to have someone onsite to manage an exchange server.  Can your IT company (or person) easily support your systems if most of your team is accessing your main data remotely.  What about your phone system, if someone calls your main business number, can it be answered if no one is physically in your office?

Having a remote strategy in place is valuable for dealing with viral illness; but it’s also a critical piece of having a successful business continuity plan.

We’ve put together a Business Continuity Checklist, you can get your free copy by using the link.

#7 Communication. It’s critically important that you, as the leader, do everything possible to combat misinformation.  Of course – you’re not a doctor.  However, you can point employees who have questions, to the CDC or World Health Organization sites for up-to-date, expert guidance.  You may even want to do a pre-emptive memo to get in front of the issue – we included a free sample memo in with the Business Continuity Checklist.

Remind your team, and particularly your managers, that health information is protected and you must maintain confidentiality around any health related information an employee tells you.  If someone tells you that they, or a family member, are ill – inform fellow employees of their possible exposure.  But you must maintain confidentiality.

So, how would that communication go?  Well, first you call counsel and run everything by them.  Then, say something like: It’s been brought to our attention that the worksite may have been exposed to the coronavirus.  Please contact your physician right away for advice on how to proceed.

And because everyone will be worried and a bit panicked, If you have an EAP, use it!  An EAP is an Employee Assistance Program, and many times it’s an added service from your health insurance company.  Check with your broker to see if you have an EAP – they can be a really option for employees to discuss their concerns, and work through issues.

#8 Consider the business impact.  While you’re working through the potential impact this might have on your business, consider these points.

  • Take a look at your sick leave policies, they may need a temporary revamp to address your needs during this time.
  • Prepare for the possibility of high absenteeism, have you cross trained your team so that almost no matter who’s out, the essential business functions are covered.
  • Are you ready for your team going remote?
  • Do you have the hardware and software in place so that they can continue to get the job done?

What about workers compensation?  Depending on the amount of time they’re offsite, you might consider speaking with your business insurance agent to make sure your worker’s compensation insurance covers remote worksites as well – and yes, I mean your employee’s homes.  If they trip over a cord while they’re working, it’s a workers’ comp injury – and you’ll need to be sure you’re covered.

#9 Posters.

There are quite a few workplace posters available from the CDC.  They can be helpful in reminding everyone to wash their hands, and stay home when they’re sick or feeling ill.

Also consider the alphabet soup of employment law protections, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act and other possible employee protections.

One final note – we know everyone will be talking about the virus, it’s impact, and the fear they feel.  But be very careful with your language.  As a leader – set the example.  Remember – the virus can’t be attributed to any one ethnicity or group.  Unfortunately, it’s everywhere because, well – it’s a virus!

We really are – all in this together.

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