Workplace Policy Lessons from the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shows us the widespread impact an uncontrollable situation can have. The situation has also taught—retroactively, unfortunately—many companies the importance of being prepared for disruptive situations.

Here are some actions to consider while facing an emergency, such as the coronavirus:

1) Advise sick employees to stay home. Make it clear to employees who are ill or have been exposed that they need to go home and stay out of the workplace until given the all-clear. While inconvenient, it is better to handle the absence of one employee than to have several people out sick or, even worse, to have your business shut down for 14 days or more for quarantine and deep cleaning.

Regarding the current coronavirus health emergency, it is entirely within your rights to send home an employee showing symptoms of illness. Things to consider are whether to require them to take sick leave or paid time off and whether to offer them extended leave, which is important given that the current quarantine period extends well beyond the length of most sick-leave policies.

2) Understand the situation of your employees. If you have an employee whose child’s school is closed or is put under quarantine while traveling or at home, offer whatever assistance you can. Perhaps offer to extend leave time or allow them to work from home so they’re not losing wages and you’re not missing their productivity while keeping them from infecting your other employees.

3) Create, expand or modify your paid time off policies. If you have paid time off policies, consider relaxing them or providing extra days off to encourage employees to stay home when needed and help them compensate for lost wages. If you do not have any paid time off policies, consider creating something for a special circumstance, such as a state of emergency.

4) Institute work-from-home policies and procedures. Review your operations and determine if there are positions and duties that can be handled remotely. If so, develop policies and procedures to allow employees to work from home.

The best thing you can do in advance of an actual office shutdown is to have folks work from home for one day as a practice run. This allows you to test your technology and hardware. Have each employee take a day to see what works and what doesn't, such as login info, printing needs, phone routing, video conferencing and document signing.

5) Review business travel policy. If you have employees who travel for business to visit clients or vendors or to attend conferences, try to determine the value of the interaction and need versus the risk for exposure and workplace contamination. You also need to evaluate where and how the employee will be traveling because some areas and modes of transportation have higher incidents of exposure than others.

6) Ensure continuity of work and information. Prepare your company for the long-term absence of one or more employees or the departure from regular procedures. Be sure everyone is backing up information and leaving necessary materials and files in the office unless they will be working remotely. Cross-train employees to cover if one person is absent.

You can implement any company policy as a limited-time practice due to special circumstances, so do not fear that making temporary accommodations will mean a regular commitment. Be sure you clearly state that these practices will be revoked by the company on a certain date or once the emergency has passed and then follow up to notify employees of the date the policy or practice expires.

Laws to Consider

There are several regulatory requirements to consider when dealing with employees who are sick, in quarantine or whose family members are sick. In addition to any paid time off benefits you offer, you often have to manage multiple leave laws at the same time.

For large employers—50 employees or more—the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides qualified employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid job- and benefit-protection that usually runs concurrently with any paid time off. There are very strict requirements for employers to follow regarding notification, tracking and documentation to stay in compliance, so timely response and accurate tracking are crucial. The length of protected leave is determined by a certification from the health care provider.

For mid-size employers—15 or more employees—the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) require employers to offer reasonable accommodations, such as a leave of absence to employees who are disabled, even if temporarily. Depending on the severity of symptoms, an employee’s need for leave may be necessary as a reasonable accommodation.

All or most employers must manage the following:

1) State and local sick leave laws. While there is no federal law mandating sick time, 12 states and Washington, D.C., as well as several cities and counties, have implemented sick leave laws covering most employers with variations in the number of employees, amount of time and whether the leave is paid or unpaid.

2) State paid disability leave. Some states have paid disability laws to cover employees for extended absences. These insurance programs are usually run through the state, but employers must notify employees of the benefit and may need to assist them with paperwork.

3) State family and medical leave laws. Some states have laws similar to FMLA that may have different parameters, including covered reasons for leave, protected leave times and different look-back periods. These leave times run concurrently with FMLA and other paid time off or leaves. 

It’s also important to know the wage and hour laws to properly pay employees. Hourly, non-exempt employees are only paid for time worked, so they usually do not need to be paid if they are sent home or not called into work at any point. However, if they are sent home, some state and local predictive scheduling laws require pay for some of the time an employee’s scheduled time.

Salaried, exempt employees must be paid in accordance with FLSA regulations. One exemption test is being paid a salary, which is defined as “a wage guarantee,” because reducing their salary for a partial week when they are willing and able to work may jeopardize their exempt status, therefore making them non-exempt and entitled to overtime.

Paige McAllister is vice president, HR compliance, Affinity HR Group, Inc.

If you find yourself having to address an employee’s long-term absence due to illness or want to develop a plan for potential emergencies, reach out to Affinity HR Group, a Big “I” Hires partner, to help walk you through your options and requirements.

To get practical and actionable advice on how to implement a remote work plan for your agency, listen in to a webinar featuring Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group, a Big "I" Hires partner.