Return to Work Plans During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Sonya Goodwin

As the economy has started to open back up, employers of all kinds should have a return to work plan in place to prepare for the inevitable return of employees to the workplace. Here are just some tips on how to plan for that return:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
    • Many people are experiencing heightened anxiety and fear due to all of the unknowns right now. While employers are also trying to navigate the many unknowns, it is beneficial to keep employees informed of tentative dates of reopening (to the extent possible and with the understanding that these dates are flexible), what the “new normal” might look like when they get back to the office, and what the employer will do to ensure a safe work environment. Sending periodic emails about these items prior to opening the workplace might relieve some of the anxieties that employees are facing right now.
    • Many employees will be scared or reluctant to come back to work. It is best practice to be aware of employee’s concerns, and remain communicative on what you are doing to create a safe work environment for employees. Remind employees to talk to their supervisors/HR if they have any issues so they can be addressed early on. It is also important to remind employees that they will not be retaliated against for expressing their concerns.
  • Social Distancing Measures
    • Consider restructuring the workplace to increase physical space between employees, as well as customers and other visitors. This may include installing plexiglass or other physical barriers, or removing some chairs or tables in break rooms and other common spaces to reduce the risk of too many employees congregating.
    • Host meetings virtually when possible, or limit the amount of people physically present.
    • If possible, stagger attendance or limit who can be at the workplace to “essential” employees and allow others to work remotely.
    • Stagger breaks to limit the amount of people in the break room or other common areas at any given time.
    • Discourage people from shaking hands, hugging, or otherwise coming into physical contact with other individuals (including customers and vendors). 
    • Limit business travel
    • Require customers to pay online or via a handsfree device to limit the exchange of money and credit cards
  • Safety Measures
    • Remind employees to engage in appropriate hygiene practices, including washing hands regularly, covering their mouths when they cough, not touching their eyes, nose, or mouth, etc.
    • Require employees to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves when around other individuals, including employees, customers, and vendors.
    • Provide tissues, no touch receptacles, soap and water, hand sanitizer, and cleaning sprays/wipes to employees to help them keep their workspace clean. 
    • Be diligent about cleaning the workplace. Designate an employee(s) to clean high-touch areas throughout the day and remind employees to keep their workspace clean. 
  • Employee Screening Procedures
    • Employers have different options for screening employees during the pandemic that would not otherwise be legal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Employers may take employees’ temperatures before they are allowed to enter the workplace, or may require employees to get tested for COVID-19 before coming to work. 
    • Employers may ask employees if they are exhibiting common symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat. Remember to check the CDC website continuously, as the symptoms continue to expand and evolve.
    • Send home any employee who is exhibiting signs of COVID-19 or have a temperature of 100.4 of higher.
    • However, it is important to consider the following:
    • There are specific notice requirements under California law that may be implicated if employers plan to take temperatures or require tests. Check with legal counsel before doing this. 
    • Taking temperatures or tests are not complete safeguards, since some individuals who have the virus may not experience fevers, and a negative COVID-19 test one day doesn’t mean the employee will not be infected the next day. 
    • If checking temperatures, it is recommended to designate a specific person(s) to do this, and maintain a confidential log. It is also recommended to get a contact-free thermometer to reduce the risk of exposure.
    • Non-exempt employees who are sent home early may need to be paid reporting time pay.
    • Non-exempt employees should be paid for time spent taking their temperature or COVID-19 tests if required by the employer.
    • Employers must adhere to privacy laws and keep all medical information confidential, and maintain medical files separate from personnel files.
  • Accommodating Employees
    • Some employees may have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting the virus. These individuals may need to be accommodated under the ADA and FEHA or other applicable state laws.
    • Employees with mental health conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic may need to be accommodated. 
    • Employees who have child care issues may need to be accommodated under the Expanded Family Medical Leave Act or local ordinances.
    • Remember that a leave of absence is only a reasonable accommodation if there are no other accommodations available that would allow the employee to continue working. Consider various options to try to allow the employee to continue working, and engage with the employee to determine what the employee’s limitations are and how they may be accommodated.
  • Planning for Future Outbreaks
    • As the economy opens back up and people are permitted to return to work, the virus will continue to spread. Create a plan for if/when an employee, customer, or vendor notifies you that he/she has been infected. This should include determining how to inform employees while maintaining confidentiality; cleaning the workplace thoroughly and perhaps hiring a third-party cleaning service to conduct a deep-clean; informing vendors and customers of any temporary shutdown of the business; hiring temporary workers to continue operations if a portion of the workforce is out sick.
  • Remember to comply with all wage and hour laws, and avoid potential claims of discrimination by treating all employees equally, unless they request accommodation (i.e. don’t exclude individuals over 65 or other high-risk individuals from the workplace just because they are higher risk – wait until they ask for accommodations before assuming they need one)

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