With several states easing restrictions to allow for some business reopenings, there are a host of new challenges for multi-state employers. A few states, like Georgia and Texas, are moving relatively fast. Others are taking a more gradual, phased-in approach. And in the hard-hit Northeast, a restart seems further away.
Many businesses are eager to restart and are trying to determine what reopening will look like with questions such as:
- Do we take employees’ temperatures at the door?
- Should we require face coverings (if not required by state law)?
- Are we adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines?
- Have we adequately trained our staff?
Working From Home
But perhaps the most overlooked question may be whether employees who have been working remotely for nearly two months want to return at all. A new survey from Global Workplace Analytics shows that a staggering 77% of the workforce want to continue working from home at least a few days a week when the pandemic is over.
“The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back in,” said the organization’s president Kate Lister on a recent XpertHR podcast. “People are dying for a little bit of flexibility in their life, and now that they’ve tasted it, they want to continue doing it.”
White-collar companies appear to be getting the message. For instance, Google and Facebook have told employees that they may stay home until 2021. Capital One informed its 40,000 employees that they will work from home through Labor Day and possibly longer, while Microsoft employees are already set to be remote through October.
And employees aren’t alone in clamoring for telework. As Lister notes, “From the employer’s side, they’ve been looking at all this space that has gone unused for months and months, and facing an economic downturn they’re going to start to think, ‘Geez, do we really need all of that space? We’re getting along OK without it.”
Some companies have already made that assessment. For example, Nationwide Insurance said it will close five offices across the US and have its 4,000 employees telework permanently.
Bringing Employees Back to Work
But moving to telework is easier for some types of employers than others. So, for those that are looking to reopen now or in the near future:
- How can they do that safely; and
- What will be the “new normal?”
“The (state) directives are lightening up the restrictions, but that doesn’t mean you have to bring everyone back on Day One,” New York City employment attorney Jason Habinsky told XpertHR. “If there is a way to safely stagger shifts or hours or days in a way that protects employees in the workplace, maybe that will be enough to reassure them that they’re not all being rushed back to work.” Habinsky chairs the labor and employment group at Haynes and Boone.
Many employers are implementing, or at least giving serious thought to, daily temperature checks before employees are allowed to enter the workplace. Habinsky acknowledges that’s one solution, but he wonders whether it’s really the best solution since the coronavirus affects individuals differently.
“Someone could come into the workplace without a temperature and still have the coronavirus or be asymptomatic,” said Habinsky. “So, it does not resolve the issue of individuals who could be symptomatic and simply not have a certain temperature.” He also notes that such screens, depending on how they are conducted, bring other risks with them, including:
- Adequately communicating with employees;
- Placing testers at risk;
- Defining what constitutes a fever;
- Paying employees for waiting time; and
- Confidentiality concerns.
And once employees are in the building, that’s not the end of the concerns. Many employers have turned to open-floor plans in recent years to increase employee collaboration. But that’s a trend that will have to be reversed in this age of social distancing.
“We’re also going to be reversing the trend of hot desking,” said Lister. “When we’re talking about cleaning protocols, it means people go to a space and work in that space for the entire day so that we know that night the space will be thoroughly cleaned.”
Lister also predicts A and B days, along with staggered shifts, becoming part of the culture for larger employers. Think about all the things that happen if everybody comes to work at the same time (e.g., 9:00 a.m.):
- How do you socially distance when everyone is trying to get through the front door?
- What do you do about the elevator?
- What do you about the buttons on the elevator?
One-way signs on floors also could be on the way, according to Lister, so employees are not constantly crossing paths in narrow halls.
Health and Safety Concerns
HR professionals also must be prepared for the employee complaints that are surely coming that a coworker is sniffling or sneezing. Habinsky said, “We do expect to see much more employee vigilantism and employees who are on high alerts if they see or believe other employees might be sick.” He added that employees will be asking for increased accommodations.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) can help reduce risks and perhaps put employees a bit more at ease. But whether employers need to provide it depends on the industry, as well as state requirements.
Habinsky points out that employers certainly can provide masks or other equipment, but should be aware that certain requirements with respect to masks could trigger obligations under OSHA or state law.
“For example, certain masks trigger obligations such as a respirator, which would require the employer to take various steps under OSHA, including training and conducting a certain review of the PPE… and having certain written policies,” said Habinsky.
All in all, it’s a lot for employers to consider. Fortunately, XpertHR’s Return-to-Work Overview offers a host of resources to help you be prepared for the various issues. Our 50-state chart of COVID-19 Stay-at-Home Orders and Reopening Plans by State also will keep you abreast of the latest developments where you operate.