Podcast: How COVID-19 Updates Should Affect Your Employee Handbook

Employers have had to adopt a host of new policies and procedures during the COVID-19 crisis and must continue weighing changes that were unthinkable just a few months ago.

This podcast features unique insights on ways to answer employee questions and prepare for future challenges from Ogletree Deakins employment attorney Kathy Dudley Helms, who heads her firm's Columbia, South Carolina office and Lin Hearne, Director of HR Operations for Acute Care at Prisma Health. Helms and Hearne share key compliance recommendations and practical tips about:

  • Remote work policies;
  • Visitor and mail policies;
  • Bonus pay;
  • Childcare issues; and
  • Communicating changes to employees.

Listen Now

Additional Resources

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Federal, State and Local Resources for Employers

Podcast: What Will Post-Pandemic Workplaces Look Like?

Transcript

David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld for XpertHR.com, published by Reed Business Information and proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

Since the coronavirus came on the scene, companies have had to come up with many new policies and procedures on the fly. And with states changing their requirements so often and businesses reopening, it's been hard to keep up. So what's a good employer to do amid this rapidly changing environment? And what kinds of challenges is HR facing as a practical matter?

For answers to those questions and more, I'm joined by a tag team of experts. Ogletree Deakins employment attorney Kathy Dudley Helms is the managing shareholder of her firm's Columbia, South Carolina office, and has been quoted by The Wall Street Journal and other outlets on COVID-19 issues.

And for HR perspective we're very pleased to welcome in Lin Hearne, the Director of HR Operations for Acute Care at Prisma Health. Lin has 17 years' experience in Human Resources, and has received three HR certifications.

Kathy, I'll begin with you. We spoke back in early March about this coming hurricane of COVID-19 and the possibility that remote work would be on the way, and this went way beyond what we could have ever imagined at the time. [0:01:37.4]

Kathy Dudley Helms: No doubt. March seems like it's several years ago at this point. And I think you're right. We couldn't anticipate everything, and we were having to make very quick decisions because things were happening so rapidly. And it was a bit like looking into that dark tunnel, and we didn't necessarily see the oncoming train yet.

But things have continued to evolve. Advice that I gave in early March is not what I would advise on many things today, including with regard to policies. The one thing that we did advise, and have been consistent on, was that we saw, for instance, a lot of policies with regard to remote work that places were using for the first time. Some companies had used it sparingly, some had used it heavily, so our clients had different experiences.

But the one thing that we consistently advised was that policies, including remote work, that were being put into place specifically for COVID-19 be communicated to employees that they were temporary or that they were specific to that.

Now what we're also seeing is some companies have seen success or are finding different ways to do their work. And so they're now transitioning policies from temporary to permanent. Again I think one of the things that's really, really important there with any policy is that the nature of it and the expectations be clearly communicated to employees.

The trick is for employees to understand the rules and to know what they have to follow. It's a good opportunity for communication. And again, employers are clearly letting the employees know that these things are in flux, and they may set something up even as a potentially permanent policy and that may need to change. So communication here is going to be what's really, really important.

David Weisenfeld: Speaking of those policies, Kathy, whether it be for remote work or otherwise, an employer certainly doesn't want to have to redistribute their policies every 10 days or so. So with that said, are there any pitfalls when it comes to adding temporary policies and practices to an employee handbook? [0:03:57.3]

Kathy Dudley Helms: I think you're right. I think what you do is you try to design the language in the policy so they don't have to be changed and so that they have some room for growth or contraction in them. But the absolute key thing is to be sure that - and this probably just sounds too simple - but I do think the key thing is to be sure that your employees consistently know what the policies are, be very clear if there's any change, and consistently and frequently communicate with your employees as to the policies in place applying to the specific instances.

In addition to remote work, another thing that many employees have questions about are if they need to be out and if they need to quarantine and how are you handling that. And that has changed.

Another thing that has changed are the testing or the temperature-taking and asking questions and things of that sort when employees are returning to work. Initially those things couldn't necessarily be done in the way they are now. So employers had to let employees know when they were going to do this, how they were going to do it, what the procedures are, and the implications.

So again, it does require some more frequent communication. You don't have to do something like necessarily have a formal policy that's made part of your handbook. You can have a policy that's communicated in other ways, and then if it looks like it's going to be a long-term part of your handbook you can add it in at that point.

David Weisenfeld: Well I want to bring Lin Hearne into the conversation because Lin, you're really on the front lines leading the HR business partner function for Prisma Health.

From your perspective, what kinds of policies and procedures has your employer had to change during this crisis? [0:05:54.3]

Lin Hearne: Absolutely, and Kathy has set me up well to answer that question, and I'll just kind of tag-team onto what she said. Of course economic conditions required us to look at all sorts of different options, and we had a review into a number of our policies and practices to respond to those changes, such as visitor restrictions, especially being in healthcare. Looking at visitor restrictions with employees as well as the community coming in.

We also looked at telecommuting opportunities. We also enhanced our childcare options for our team members. And so those are a couple of examples of the policies that we did adjust around this crisis.

David Weisenfeld: You mentioned visitor restrictions, the things that we wouldn't have even considered before all this happened, like changing your policy about mail that might be coming in as well. Has that been something that you've had to take a look at? [0:06:50.5]

Lin Hearne: We've looked at all of that. We also looked at every single day when a team member comes to work we are taking their temperature and requiring masks. We are asking them the appropriate questions, you know, "Have you had any symptoms?" as well as any patients coming into the hospitals for testing.

So we are putting all different measures in place to make sure when you do walk into our facilities that we are being as safe as possible, not only for our team members but also for the community that we serve.

David Weisenfeld: Kathy, I'm sure your phone has been ringing off the hook these last few months. What's the big question or questions that you're hearing from clients now? [0:07:34.6]

Kathy Dudley Helms: It depends on the day. And before when I would have said that, I would have been kidding. I'm not kidding. If you can grasp the issues and the questions in this, really there are ocean waves. And they change week to week. Again, you know, initially we were being asked a lot about people trying to understand what the CDC guidelines were saying and what they were supposed to do. I will say that most all employers have really been trying to create a very safe workplace. So we had a lot of issues about that.

Before it was declared a pandemic you couldn't ask certain questions. After it was declared a pandemic, you could. So we had to work with people on clarity of those. There have been a lot of OSHA issues.

But most recently I've been getting a lot of questions about employees who are not wanting to return to the workplace and how that should be handled, or employees who are asserting that they may have been exposed to someone who might have COVID-19. Now we've got a wide range of situations because certainly if someone calls in and says, "My spouse has been diagnosed with COVID-19," that's pretty clear. You tell them to stay home. There's no question. But if someone calls in for four or five times and says, "I may have been exposed to someone and shouldn't I just stay home?" And you think you've got someone who may be a little bit suspect there, that's a different response.

The other thing that there are a lot of questions about are what if someoneā€¦ and let me be clear on this. Employers want to keep the workplace safe. So they don't want to bring people in who may be problematic and may have been exposed. That's a pretty clear line.

But the question becomes, if someone is not using good judgement after work, or for instance they go to the beach every weekend and they don't use social distancing and they don't wear a mask, and they keep having to call out, at what point is there potentially discipline? At what point does an employer decide, "We're not going to pay for quarantine?" And so those are really the issues that we're starting to see now. And it is becoming heavily an issue that's tied into off-duty activities and people being responsible.

David Weisenfeld: And how about you, Lin? I'm sure a lot of unique challenges in your role. What kinds of questions are you hearing from an HR perspective, and how are you rolling out the information to answer those questions? [0:10:19.2]

Kathy Dudley Helms: I love that you asked me that question. So I will say one thing that we have done very well is consistent communication to our organization to keep our team informed of what's happening within our organization as well as outside our organization. We developed a daily communication to all team members, as well as we developed an A-star leadership daily communication with HR directors and vice-presidents. The HR daily communication was so successful that we actually decided to keep that process going forward because it kept us informed of everything that was happening in the moment.

We also developed a COVID resource page on our internal intranet page for all levels of team members to pull at any time, any daily communications, also tools and resources that they need during this crisis. This is an interactive site that provides these communications into buckets. So the buckets included team member resources, team member Q&A, infection prevention information, clinical announcements, and guidelines and procedures.

And so with that, the team can go on the intranet page, they could find the bucket they're looking for, and look for all the communication. We were able to keep team members informed with this communication and the information at their fingertips to pull at any time. If they wanted those things, so a team member Q&A, where a team member could actually go in there and respond to a question, and then we would actually respond and work with our marketing team on a response back to the team members.

David Weisenfeld: Communication is so important, so it sounds like that's been a really effective strategy for you.

In terms of your work generally, I know Kathy was speaking earlier about policies and procedures that have had to change. Anything specific besides what she touched on, and you touched on briefly earlier, that your employer has had to adapt or change during the crisis? [0:12:20.6]

Lin Hearne: Yeah, so a policy we had to adapt and change during the crisis was really our telecommuting policy. So a remote work option was something we always supported. However, COVID has evolved our telecommuting policy. We had a number of team members use this option with the support of our leadership team. This actually was so successful to the point that we are now reviewing, like Kathy mentioned earlier, "Do we need to review this for permanent remote work going forward?"

This is something that was extremely successful and we found that team members are actually more productive remote than being in the office.

David Weisenfeld: And Kathy, how about you in terms of remote work and other policies in this temporary environment, that we don't know how long will be temporary? Have you been advising clients to adopt new policies when it comes to things like receiving visitors, along those lines? [0:13:19.5]

Kathy Dudley Helms: David, one of the things you had mentioned earlier was mail. Who thought we would ever have to sanitize mail? I mean that's just not something that any of us had ever considered. And one of the things, and with our particular office here, and I'm the managing shareholder, so we've had to look at all of our safety issues. Well we have a heavy immigration practice in this office, so we haven't ever been able to totally close down the office.

And one of the things we've had to watch is the mail coming every day because it's so critical in that practice. So we've always had to have a system for handling the mail and getting it in, and getting everything set up so that the attorneys and paralegals could do what was needed daily.

So that's something we very quickly had to pay attention to. We had to talk with the postal service about how they were going to do things, and we've had to manage that. So that's been something. It's not really a new policy, but it's certainly been a new practice or a protocol that we've had to develop.

Employers are doing the same, and there are any number of things that would seem to be fairly easy to deal with but they are not necessarily. And it depends on the workplace. Whether or not you develop a policy, employers at least need safety protocols and procedures, and they need to announce them.

They've also got to think upfront about what they're going to do if they have employees who don't necessarily follow them. We've found that in a workplace you can have a whole range of opinions about COVID-19, from people who don't necessarily believe that it's much of a threat and that the numbers are fictitious, to people who are absolutely terrified to come into work. So having your safety practice consistent with the CDC and making the expectations clear is really important.

But employers are going to need to address things like whether or not they're going to require face coverings. They need to look at their jurisdictional requirements on that. They've got to decide how they're going to facilitate frequent hand washing and sanitizing. You know, they've got to even address things like if they're going to limit the number of people who can be on an elevator at a time. And that stuff matters. You've got to look at things like traffic flows.

And then again one of the things that is really, really important - whether you call these policies or protocols or practices or whatever name you have on them - again employers need to decide ahead of time how they're going to enforce them, and what they're going to do if someone does not abide by these new safety rules, because these safety rules are critical to the workplace.

So this is the new layer of things that we're really seeing employers having to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

David Weisenfeld: Again we're speaking with Kathy Dudley Helms of Ogletree Deakins, and Lin Hearne in HR at Prisma Health. Kathy, shifting gears a bit, some states will be reopening schools later this summer, and others might be 50% in-person and 50% remote, and there still might be others that are all remote. How do you advise companies in this environment to plan ahead for that with their employees when work sites are open? [0:16:43.3]

Kathy Dudley Helms: If I had the right answer for that I could quit working! You have hit on the $60-million question right now. Childcare has long been an issue in this country. I mean we know that, and it has been. The problem is childcare resources are going away as a result of COVID-19. Those are important to back up when school's out, so you have to look at those two issues together.

What we're seeing now is school districts don't know, or states don't even know, what they're going to do. Now we got some practice on this when schools began shutting in March. And so a lot of places began to deal with this. Lin actually has good information on this. So we've got some experience, or employers have some experience. The trick is, if schools shut, are there backup systems?

And right now there's a lot of reason to be concerned that the childcare is not going to necessarily be widely available for people who have to work. So again this requires looking at, "Is remote work possible? How do you keep people productive?" All of those issues are going to be big.

But I think this is hitting on a weak spot we already had in this country, and we've got to figure it out. But right now we're just working with employers to walk through all of the options. But many of them are far more knowledgeable on this. And again, it's another opportunity to connect with their employees and to figure out how they can best continue to operate.

David Weisenfeld: Lin, Kathy set you up well there with the good information, so I'll throw it now to you and get your thoughts because I know this must be a tricky issue for your organization as well, especially with so many essential workers. [0:18:40.6]

Lin Hearne: Absolutely. So of course, being in healthcare, one of the things that we actually did a few years ago is we already had a partnership with a company that we call 'backup childcare.' And so this backup childcare allows our team members, as a benefit that we provide, allows our team members to work with this outside organization for childcare options at the drop of a hat.

So with this partnership we actually enhanced the benefits to help our team members in this crisis situation. So we amended another policy to help support our team members with something that we call 'Bright Horizons Crisis Benefit Fund.' And so what this did is, because the demand with this vendor was very high, we actually created something called the crisis care benefit, has included an out-of-pocket network benefit, and with that out-of-pocket network benefit it allows team members to still be reimbursed up to $100 per day if they were not able to secure childcare through our vendor. And so that was something we had in place, and we amended that policy to help with the situation we were in.

We also took it a step further and we also partner with a lot of our local community organizations, such as the YMCA and school districts, to offer emergency childcare services to our team members. We also reached out to the community and created a list for our team members of all the childcare resources by county that our team members could utilize and call directly to get childcare.

David Weisenfeld: Kathy, essential workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic are asking for more bonus pay, and of course a lot of people are sympathetic, but these are tough economic times. How have your clients been navigating that? [0:20:25.4]

Kathy Dudley Helms: David, you've said something that's absolutely key to everything that's going on, and that's that this is a twofold crisis. It's both health and economic. And you can't untangle those two. But the reality is we now have a threefold crisis because we've got the added issue of racial equity, and that's impacting workplaces as well.

There are really two different discussions about pay for certain workers that exist here, and people often lump them in and call it 'hazard pay' or 'hazard bonus' or something.

But the first question and the first aspect of this that's involved in the discussion is number one, there are people being questioned whether or not they're being paid a fair wage to begin with for what they do day in and day out. And this has really gone with the fight for having a minimum wage of $15 an hour. That's kind of been folded into this, because the question has been, "Wait a minute. Are these people being underpaid to begin with?"

So then it morphs into a second question, which is really a separate one - should be, but it's based on this - is the discussion of what's called 'hazard pay' typically. There are different names for it, but it's typically thought of as hazard pay. And that addresses the fact that certain employees are putting themselves in harm's way to the benefit of us all. And do they deserve something additional?

As you've seen, there have been different employers, large employers, who have done things, for instance, upping pay by $2 an hour for a period of time. Again, it's been temporary. There have been other companies who have announced one-time bonuses. That also had tended to be a one-time deal and not an overall pay adjustment.

So employers are having to really figure out what works for them. This issue has also caught the attention of a number of unions, and they have kept it in the forefront. It's certainly a PR issue for a lot of employers, but it's also an issue of how they're going to treat their employees.

But again you're correct that the economics of the current situation make it really, really tough. And hospitals typically get hit hard in this discussion because most hospitals shut down - and this is just because their discussions are a little different - most hospitals shut down their heavy revenue sources when they shut down elective procedures. And you had a lot of the high revenue sources that were closed down. So even during a time when you had another segment of healthcare that was on the front line of all of this, you had hospitals being just drained of revenue.

Now some of the legislation in some of those things has helped address this. But for any employer, it's what can you do and what is right for your employees? And every company may be a little different and need to look at those. But again I think it also goes back to when we look at our grocery store workers, and when we look at the folks who deliver all of our packages, were they being paid where they should have been to even begin with? So I think there is an immediate question, and there's a long-term question there.

David Weisenfeld: And Lin, I know that time is running short, but I'll bet you have something to add on this issue for sure. So what are your thoughts when it comes to that and bonus pay? [0:24:08.0]

Lin Hearne: Yes, I think Kathy nailed that question. I would just add that these are always topics that are being discussed and reviewed on a regular basis. We, along with other employers, continue to review the economic situation and continue to review that. We also currently steer our team members to current resources that we have in place. We have something called our 'team member care fund,' which is a situation where if a team member is in a tight bind, we actually have a program in place to help them during those times as well.

So again, this is something we are always reviewing, always discussing, and looking at the environment around us to see what we can do and can't do.

David Weisenfeld: Okay. Lin Hearne is Director of HR Operations for Acute Care at Prisma Health, and Kathy Dudley Helms is the managing shareholder of Ogletree Deakins's Columbia, South Carolina office, and certainly has been a good friend of XpertHR over the years.

Kathy and Lin, thanks so much for joining us. [0:25:10.0]

Kathy Dudley Helms: Thank you.

Lin Hearne: Thank you for having us.

David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld. We hope you enjoyed this podcast. Continue checking our website regularly for more podcasts on topics affecting the workplace, including LGBT Workers Win a Landmark Supreme Court Ruling and How Employers Should Respond To The George Floyd Aftermath.

The opinions expressed in this program do not represent legal advice, nor should they necessarily be taken as the views of XpertHR or its employees. XpertHR.com is published by Reed Business Information, and is proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

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