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Reopening in the Shadow of the Coronavirus – Have a Plan

Peter J. Richter

May 15, 2020

As stay-at-home restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted and more businesses open, it is vitally important that employers implement policies and procedures designed to improve safety in the workplace.  Employers who fail to do so will not only face an increased risk of employment-related claims but will also have a confused and apprehensive workforce.  With that in mind, there are steps that businesses can take to lower the risk and address employee concerns.

First, stay up to date on the federal, state, and local rules, regulations, mandates, and guidelines.  Since the beginning of the pandemic, the legal landscape has been fluid with new requirements and guidance issued weekly.  Businesses should continue to monitor the status of the rules governing how they may conduct business.  The resources available include guidance issued by OSHA, the Department of Labor, the CDC, EEOC, and state authorities like the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Second, assess the particular risks and needs of your organization. For example, a manufacturing plant will have different requirements and threats than a professional office setting. Determine which employees need to return to the workplace and which employees may be able to continue to work from home.  Employers should remain mindful that as the number of employees who return to the place of work increases, so does the possibility of an employee spreading COVID-19.  Furthermore, the more employees who are working in the same location, the more measures the employer may need to take to address safety.  While not always true, added measures often come with added costs.

Third, develop a policy and communicate with your employees.  Among other things, a well-drafted response policy will help employees understand the expectations.  The policy will also guide those in the organization who are tasked with addressing workplace issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic in a manner that is both consistent and non-discriminatory.  A policy may address things like social distancing, PPE, gatherings in common areas, screening procedures, cleaning, starting/ending shifts, telework, and other safety measures intended to meet the obligations imposed by applicable federal, state, and local regulation.  For example, OSHA has issued guidance indicating that a response policy will be one of the first items requested in the event an unsafe work complaint is being investigated.  Of course, a policy works best if it is effectively communicated to the workforce.

Finally, be especially mindful of other policies and procedures that might be impacted, such as sick leave, travel, telework, and family leave.  Most small to medium sized employers are covered by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and should have a policy outlining the types and amounts of leave available, eligibility factors, and procedures for requesting leave.

There has already been an uptick in employment litigation related to COVID-19 and experts expect the trend to continue.  Employers that fail to implement policies addressing the pandemic and the reopening of business operations may find themselves part of the trend.

 

If you have any questions about how the information in this article may affect you or your business, please contact Peter Richter at prichter@stroudlaw.com or (608) 257-2281 or your Stroud attorney.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is provided for general informational purposes only, is not necessarily updated to account for changes in the law, and should not be considered tax or legal advice.  This article is not intended to create, nor does the receipt of it constitute, an attorney-client relationship.  You should consult with your own legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.