What Businesses Can Do to Ease the Transition When Reopening Their Doors

28 Jul

As governments start easing stay-at-home orders and other restrictions, businesses that closed their doors to help contain the COVID-19 spread will be permitted to reopen, some sooner than others and most on a gradual basis. Often broad and sometimes inconsistent guidance from federal, state and local governments creates confusion as to when, and to what extent, different businesses can reopen. Even for those that can fully reopen, the staggered and phased reopening of other companies further blurs business outlooks and prospects. It is clear, however, that each business must create new workplace measures and policies to safely and effectively reopen.

The pandemic has impacted nearly all businesses, especially those forced to reduce operations or close completely. Most have never faced situations like those precipitated by COVID-19, and thus, will be navigating unchartered waters both from a business and employer perspective. The ultimate best course of action will differ from business to business. This article highlights some of the key considerations to reopening from a business and employer perspective.

1. Providing a Safe and Healthful Workplace: The Occupational Safety and Health Act (the Act) requires that all employees be given a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to” employees. The scope of this duty takes on a new meaning in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has made clear that the Act and OSHA requirements and standards apply to prevent an employee’s exposure to COVID-19 at work. Both OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued guidance on steps employers can take to reduce an employee’s risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. In addition to guidance issued by these agencies, employers should also consider guidance issued by other federal agencies, as well as state and local entities.

The nature of the recommended steps varies based on the risk of exposure associated with the job at issue, with the most stringent recommendations applying to those jobs classified as very high risk, such as certain health care and morgue jobs. Employers should consider the following actions to ensure the safety and well-being of workers:

  • Determine appropriate Personal Protective Equipment for workers, such as face masks, face shields, gloves, gowns and goggles.
  • Enhance cleaning and sanitization procedures for the workplace. Employers should note not only the thoroughness of cleaning but the frequency, with some workplaces requiring cleaning multiple times a day.
  • Maintain social distancing in the workplace, which may involve reconfiguring offices, conference rooms, cafeterias and other common areas; implementing staggered shifts; restricting in-person meetings with clients and customers; and limiting access to the workplace to only those cleared in advance and by appointment.
  • Encourage good personal hygiene in the workplace, which may include making tissues, antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer readily available; promoting frequent hand washing; displaying posters in the workplace to prompt employees to practice good hygiene; reminding employees not to touch their mouth, nose or eyes with unclean hands; and instructing employees to cough or sneeze into a tissue or flexed elbow.
  • Establish a policy setting forth standards to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in the workplace, like COVID-19. This policy may include guidelines for reporting symptoms, diagnosis or exposure to a communicable disease and responses to such reports, such as requiring the affected employee(s) to be sent home or remain at home, contact tracing and isolating affected employees.

COVID-19 is an ever-changing situation, resulting in frequent modifications to applicable guidelines. As a result, employers should regularly monitor guidance issued by federal, state and local entities to remain abreast of current recommendations and best practices.

2. Screening Employees for COVID-19: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) guidance related to the COVID-19 pandemic indicates that employers may screen employees entering the workplace to determine if they may have COVID-19 without running afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Currently, such screening may include standard questions about symptoms and travel history, measuring body temperature and administering a COVID-19 test before letting an employee enter the workplace. The EEOC emphasizes that the COVID-19 test must be accurate and reliable. All information obtained from the screening must be kept confidential and stored separately from an employee’s personnel file. Some businesses may also consider screening others who enter the workplace, including vendors, customers and other visitors.

3. Transitioning from Home to Office: Businesses starting to reopen will also face the transition of some or all employees from home back to the office. Given the nature of the pandemic, it is unlikely that requiring all employees to return to the office once doors reopen will be workable for logistical and health reasons. Instead, in developing a home-to-office plan, many factors should be considered, including:

  • Whether employees should have the option to continue working from home for some time after reopening
  • Whether certain jobs and employees are more critical to a business’s operations and require a physical presence in the office sooner than other jobs and employees
  • Whether employees who are adequately fulfilling the job requirements from home should continue to work from home for some time after reopening
  • Whether employees who have high-risk conditions or share a household with someone who has a high-risk condition should have the option to continue working from home for some time after reopening
  • Whether employees without childcare should be allowed to continue to work from home or work an alternative schedule at the office until daycares reopen and summer camps become available
  • Whether only a portion of employees should initially return to the office to test new processes, including screening measures and other safety procedures and protocols, and to maintain social distancing
  •  Whether transitioning should take place in shifts, whether on a daily, weekly or another basis

4. Recalling Laid-Off or Furloughed Employees: Employers that furloughed or laid off employees due to COVID-19 may begin to recall them as businesses can reopen and restrictions are lifted. Employers are not required to rehire laid-off employees and may, instead, hire new employees. However, many employers may also choose to rehire their laid-off employees. In addition to changes precipitated by the lifting of restrictions, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which is described below, has also prompted some businesses to recall previously laid-off and furloughed employees. Employers should consider having a written plan to govern the recalling of these employees to mitigate against claims of unlawful discrimination. This plan should be based, to the extent possible, on objective factors, such as jobs needed, years of service, work location and documented performance reviews.

5. Getting Your House in Order: A gradual or staged reopening of markets, businesses and industries means vendors, customers and clients may not be fully operational upon reopening. Take this opportunity to clean up your books and tackle previously neglected administrative tasks. Consider re-organizing or streamlining back-office functions. Doing so will position your company for success once your business ramps up to pre-pandemic levels.

6. Marketing: Your clients, customers and relationships need to know that you are preparing to reopen. Use advertising and social media platforms to inform the public that you are taking the proper precautions and ready to get back to work. Effective and optimistic communication can also reinvigorate your employees and position them for success upon returning to a “normal” work environment.

7. Maintaining Business Contacts: Most businesses are already in contact with their lenders and landlords. Each situation is unique and dependent on your lenders’ and landlords’ willingness to share your cash flow burdens. Still, businesses should request and consider taking advantage of all available relief and extensions on loan payments and rent reduction, deferral or abatement. Be mindful of the unintended tax consequences that could flow from significant loan and lease modifications and consult with your legal and tax advisors during this process.

Identify your most critical vendors, contact them early and keep open lines of communication regarding your ability to pay. Consider requesting discounts or extended payment plans where appropriate and available. Many vendors will have the same cash flow concerns and may be willing to liquidate their accounts receivable at a discount.

8. Conserving Cash: If your business has maintained healthy cash reserves, great! But avoid, where possible, dipping into or exhausting those reserves too soon. The road back to pre-pandemic levels is uncertain and may be prolonged. Instead, take advantage of available loans and grants. Consider liquidating accounts receivable by offering a discount or installment plan to customers and clients who may want to accelerate payment. Focus on utilizing available cash to maintain your workforce, keep your loans and leases in good standing, and preserve relationships with your most critical vendors.

9. Taking Advantage of Available Capital: The highly publicized PPP loan program administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and Small Business Administration (SBA) is providing, through banks, low-interest and potentially forgivable loan funds to qualifying businesses. The initial $349 billion of PPP funds was exhausted within 13 days. While Congress authorized an additional $310 billion in PPP funds on April 24, many expect this will soon run out as well. If you can obtain a PPP loan, use these funds for payroll expenses and other designated purposes. Be sure to document those expenses and payments during the measurement period.

If you are ineligible or missed out on PPP, other government-backed loans and grants may be available. Loans and grants are being made available under SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program for certain businesses affected by COVID-19. The Treasury and Federal Reserve are also administering the Main Street Lending Program, providing $600 billion in loan funds to qualifying businesses. Many state governments are also providing financial assistance. The Louisiana Loan Portfolio Guaranty Program, for instance, is making low-interest loans of up to $100,000 to help eligible businesses recover from the pandemic. Consider taking advantage of these opportunities and consult with your banker and lawyer to help guide you through the process and advise you on any pitfalls.

COVID-19: Enforcing Mask Rules at Work

By CalChamber  July 13, 2020

Ask Why

While wearing a mask in the workplace is not law, it is recommended by local and state authorities, such as the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), that employees wear masks at work and maintain a distance of six feet from one another. This guidance not only protects customers from the spread of COVID-19, but also helps keep employees healthy and safe in the workplace.

The guidance and orders issued by the CDPH and other government agencies, Shaw tells listeners, is the appropriate reasoning an employer needs to establish a mask and social distancing policy at work.

But what if, Frank asks, an employee is found not wearing a mask?

Shaw says that enforcing mask rules is not about getting people in trouble. As with any other violation, an employer should seek out why the worker is not wearing a mask. Is the reason due to a medical condition or is it a political statement?

If the employee chooses not to wear a mask because of a political stance, Shaw recommends that the employer state that the employee is expected to comply with all of the company’s rules and regulations, and that violations are subject to discipline.

“…Employees have to know [that] even though we are getting some mixed messages in the media and there are some political issues out there, when it comes to your workplace, you have to follow the rules that the employer has set for you as long as those are appropriate rules,” Shaw says.

Moreover, she continues, the employer should communicate that the rules put into place are to keep all employees safe.

Medical Accommodations

If an employee is not wearing a mask because they have a medical condition, the employer should treat it like any other medical accommodation request, but should keep in mind that this situation, is slightly different due to the direct threat to everyone’s health and safety, Shaw explains.

“Just because somebody has a medical condition that precludes them from being able to wear a mask doesn’t mean they get to expose…people to the virus,” she says.

Should a worker have a medical condition that precludes wearing a mask, employers should find ways to maintain safety, such as allowing the employee to telework or finding other ways to get the employee into the workplace, Shaw says.

Shaw compares the situation to having a service animal. Employees with service animals still have to abide by certain rules. For example, a service dog has to behave and cannot relieve itself at work. Similarly, she says, even though an individual has the right to an accommodation, there are going to be limitations on that, especially given the direct threat that not wearing a mask presents.

Set Reminders

Sometimes, the reason an employee is not wearing a mask is simply because they forgot. At work, people are rushing to finish projects, or have to get up to retrieve a document from the printer, or perhaps are hurrying to attend a customer, Shaw says.

Employers need to have grace, she says, and realize that “people are going to make mistakes occasionally.”

Still, it is critical that employers enforce the rules, and they should be transparent about all of the company’s expectations, Shaw says.

Employers should also find ways to remind employees of the mask and social distancing requirements. Employers can buy posters and decals to space out six-foot distances or use masking tape to establish an employee’s work zone.

Inappropriate Graphics

Now that face masks are more widely available, Frank points out that masks have become the new fashion accessory, and masks might contain logos, designs and messages. Can an employer prohibit masks with certain words, imagery or decals?

Similar to a dress code policy, employers can prohibit masks that contain expletives, inappropriate graphics, or messaging that violates the company’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) policy, Shaw explains.

Although an employer can prohibit masks with messaging altogether, if an employer asks that employees wear only a certain color of mask so that it matches their company’s shirt, then the mask becomes a “uniform” requirement, and the employer will have to provide the mask, Shaw explains.

“So don’t get too specific about the color or the style or the design,” she says. “But you are allowed to say…nothing with a printed message, nothing with an inappropriate graphic or logo or screen print on it.”

In other words, Frank says, it’s back to the basics, “taking COVID out and going back to the basics of what would you do in this circumstance to try to solve the puzzle.”

Shaw recommends employers exercise common sense and remember “our point is workplace safety; we’re trying to keep people safe and healthy.” If employers think about that as being the goal, it helps with what steps they actually take.

Recording, Reporting Work-Related COVID-19 Cases

James W. Ward  July 24, 2020 Cal Chamber

As COVID-19 cases increase in California, more employers are receiving notice of employees testing positive for the virus — but they may not be sure of when to record and report the cases given the amount of guidance issued by numerous agencies and public health officials at every level of government. This brief summary of employers’ obligations when an employee tests positive for COVID-19 should help.

When an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the first thing employers must do is send the employee home and follow the company’s COVID-19 workplace exposure/outbreak plan and applicable health mandates with respect to finding exposed close contacts, notifying and quarantining exposed employees, cleaning protocols, etc. Privacy laws restrict you from disclosing names of COVID-19 positive employees when notifying close contacts of potential exposure; employers must maintain confidentiality. A detailed California Department of Public Health (CDPH) memo guides employers through workplace outbreaks, including quarantine timelines, testing issues, CDC guidance and other topics.

Once that’s handled, the CDPH states that employers should contact their local health department to report confirmed COVID-19 cases in the workplace. The local health department may have specific reporting criteria and requirements. Additionally, if the COVID-19 positive employee lives in a different county/jurisdiction from the workplace, the employer should contact that jurisdiction’s health department.

Employers also must comply with certain recording and reporting requirements of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA.

Cal/OSHA requires employers to record work-related illnesses on their Log 300 when one of the following things happen:

  • Death.
  • Days away from work.
  • Restricted work or transfer to another job.
  • Medical treatment beyond first aid.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • A significant injury or illness diagnosed by a physician or other licensed health care professional.

COVID-19 cases could check several items on this list, so employers will likely have to record COVID-19 illnesses on their Log 300.

In its FAQ on the topic, Cal/OSHA states that COVID-19 cases should generally be lab confirmed, but confirmation is not necessary to trigger recording requirements. Due to testing shortages and other circumstances, there may be situations in which an employer must make a recordability determination even though testing did not occur. If the circumstances meet any of the criteria listed above, the case should be recorded. Cal/OSHA says employers should err on the side of recordability, but clarified that “days spent away from work” do not include days spent quarantined.

For recording purposes, an illness is presumed work-related if it results from events or exposure in the work environment, such as interaction with COVID-19 positive individuals, working in the same area or sharing items with COVID-19 positive individuals. Employers should evaluate the employee’s duties, environment and interactions to determine the likelihood the employee was exposed at work.

In some cases, employers may have to report COVID-19 cases directly to Cal/OSHA. Employers must report a serious illness to Cal/OSHA when it is contracted “in connection with any employment” and results in death or hospitalization other than observation or diagnostic testing. So, if an employee becomes ill at work and is admitted to the hospital, the employer must report it to Cal/OSHA immediately, but no later than eight hours after the employer knows about it.

Cal/OSHA guidance states that employers must report the serious illness regardless of whether it’s work-related. Also, employers should report serious illnesses if an employee becomes symptomatic outside of work, as long as there is some cause to believe the illness was contracted in connection with any employment, including, for example, other COVID-19 cases in the workplace, exposure to COVID-19 positive individuals, contact with the public, etc.

Employers may report a serious illness to Cal/OSHA via phone or email.

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