Q. What should my company be doing to prepare for the spread of the coronavirus?
A. With the number of coronavirus cases topping 90,000 worldwide, resulting in more than 3,000 deaths across 65 countries, it is only a matter of time before the disease has some impact on normal business operations. However, as the virus continues its march around the globe, there are certain actions companies can take today to mitigate potential disruptions and calm employee nerves.
Communication is key. Employees want concrete answers to questions about employer expectations in the event that the crisis reaches their door. If you haven’t done so already, it would be helpful to issue a policy with, at a minimum, some common sense advice about handwashing, coughing and sneezing etiquette, and sanitizing common areas. Employees should be told to leave work and stay home if they have respiratory symptoms or a fever and companies should communicate this directive to staffing agencies that supply the workplace with temporary or contract workers. Consider placing hand sanitizers in strategic locations and suggesting that employees avoid handshakes.
In addition, employers should ensure that their policies on sick leave are compliant with federal, state and local leave laws. Companies should review these policies with workers so that employees are aware of the consequences, if any, if they are unable to come to work due to their own illness or if they are needed to tend to a sick family member. Companies also need to make sure the appropriate personnel are aware of their obligations to maintain confidentiality under the Americans With Disabilities Act with regard to employees who are sick while working with public health officials to notify employees who may have been exposed to the virus.
There may come a time when the virus reduces the ability of even healthy employees to get to work if, for example, schools and public transportation are impacted. Employers should consider and communicate whether and which employees are permitted to work from home under such circumstances and ensure that employees have the tools they need to telecommute. Companies also should set expectations around such work-from-home arrangements and communicate whether they plan to pay workers who are not able to perform their jobs remotely. In that regard, employers need to keep in mind the rules regarding pay for exempt and non-exempt workers. Many employees are relaxing their attendance policies temporarily in response to the crisis.
In terms of business continuity, employers will want to cross-train employees to perform critical job functions in the event that certain staff members fall ill. Companies with multiple facilities also will want to cross-train individuals to take over key business functions in the event that one location is impacted more severely than others. Employers also should have a plan in place to identify alternative sources of supply and services required to maintain business operations in the event of increased absenteeism, supply chain interruptions and shortages of raw materials.
Employers also should consider implementing rules around travel, both business and personal. Some companies already have replaced meetings with videoconferences and advised employees to avoid nonessential business travel to high risk areas. Make sure that employees know that they should notify a supervisor or human resources if they become sick while traveling. With spring break fast approaching, some employees may be planning trips domestically and abroad. Many companies are asking employees to disclose their travel plans and imposing a 14-day ban on entering the workplace after an employee has traveled to a high-risk region. Employers may compel employees to disclose their personal travel plans but should take steps to maintain confidentiality of that information. Moreover, employers will need to consider off-duty conduct laws in their states if they plan on taking any kind of adverse action based on an employee’s personal travel.
Preparation rather than panic should be your company motto. Thinking through these important issues and memorializing them in a written disease outbreak response plan will help companies protect their workplaces and ensure continuity of operations to the greatest extent possible.
For assistance in drafting a disease response plan, please contact us.
-Tracey E. Diamond