To say that the last 3+ months were challenging would be an understatement. I hope this article finds you and your family safe and healthy. We have all been required to make a number of adjustments to our lives, from personal, professional, social and psychological perspectives.
Depending upon your state and even potentially your county or town, the transition from furlough, layoff or exclusively “work from home” back to the workplace has begun, or may begin soon.
The current COVID-19 environment is fluid and dynamic, so who knows what developments may have occurred by the time you are reading this, I’m writing this article from Southeastern PA, and we are about to transition from the governor’s red statusto yellow.
This article is intended to provide some basic guidance to consider as an employer or member of the leadership team responsible for developing and implementing a return to workplace program. As always, it’s critical to seek the expertise of legal, insurance and other professionals before taking any significant operational steps.
Where to start? - A risk assessment
The COVID-19 pandemic impacts states and regions in different ways. As such, it’s critical to understand and review all relevant state and local orders to determine if and when your business is allowed to reopen. Prior to conducting a risk assessment, it’s important to review guidance from OSHA, state and local agencies, industry associations as well as your local health department. Risk assessments include:
- Identification of hazards – high-risk areas, tasks employees perform, populations they come in contact with
- Who is at risk – all employees? Only certain job functions? Particular locations/worksites?
- Assessing risks – How likely? What ramifications? Potential health and safety impact? Business disruption? Reputational harm?
- Controlling risks – What can be eliminated, controlled, or transferred (for management/oversight by third party)?
- Monitoring the results – risk management and its processes and protocols are an ongoing and evolving effort
It’s often said that hindsight is 2020, however few employers were as prepared as they would like to have been at the onset of the pandemic. If you didn’t have a planning checklist in place, or it was lean on detail/specifics, this experience provides all the incentive needed to shore up that document and processes.
The Department of Health and Human Services and with the Centers for Disease Control put together a Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist that can be located here. The checklist provides some great guidance on steps an employer can take including some key aspects of planning wthat include:
- Identify a pandemic coordinator and/or team with defined roles and responsibilities.
- Identify essential employees and other key inputs (raw materials, sub-contractors, suppliers, etc.) required for operations.
- Establish an emergency communications plan to include key contacts (with backups), chain of communications (including suppliers and customers) and processes for tracking communications.
The identification of a coordinator and/or team is a key first step in the process of returning to the workplace as well. The scope and design of your team will vary depending on your specific business, but some key roles to consider include:
Preparing for re-opening
- Team lead(s)— responsible for the overall action plan. The team lead is responsible for working with company stakeholders and relevant health and safety bodies to manage this action plan.
- COVID-19 prevention-and-protocols lead—responsible for recommending and developing protocols to ensure the wellness of all employees. They are also tasked with overseeing procedures for isolating employees should they become sick at work.
- Sanitization and disinfection lead—manages logistics related to daily and periodic sanitation and disinfection efforts.
- Communication lead—tasked with managing any and all pandemic-related communications. They will work with HR and internal communication stakeholders to ensure COVID-19 training is completed and that employees and their managers understand their role in preventing the spread of the disease.
- By breaking up your company’s response efforts, it will be easier for your organization to be thorough and ensure that no step is missed.
If, as a result of your risk assessment, your team has determined a re-opening is feasible, the focus shifts to doing so safely. Depending upon your industry, workforce, and location(s), workplace modifications may need to take place. For many employers, social distancing will continue to play a key role.
As a part of this process, desks and workstations may need to be modified or re-configured to ensure there’s a minimum of 6 feet between stations. Some other steps to consider include:
- Adding partitions to open floor plans
- Closing common spaces, including conference rooms, break rooms and cafeterias
- Modifying high-touch surfaces (e.g., propping doors open) to avoid employees unnecessarily touching surfaces
- Posting signage around the office to remind employees of social-distancing protocols
- In addition to the above, employers may consider new workplace protocols such as establishing crowd-control policies to ensure as few employees as possible are in the location at once. Limiting the size of in-person meetings or prohibiting them altogether and staggering meal/break times to keep crowd size manageable are additional steps to consider.
Employees are back. Now what?
Many eligibility questions will be answered depending on whether the employee was terminated (a termination and rehire) or remained active (while on a furlough) with continued eligibility. It’s a good time to review your current plan document to see what it may state regarding furloughs, rehires, or unpaid leaves. If you wish to be more generous than the current wording, just be sure to confirm with your carrier and then amend the plan document as needed.
It’s important to note that under the ACA, if an employee is rehired within 13 weeks (26 weeks for educational organizations), the employee will be considered a continuing employee. S/he should be offered coverage no later than the first day of the month following resumption of services.
If the employee wasn’t terminated and the employee remained active on health benefits, you may resume premium deductions from his/her pay. Employers may recoup the cost of any missed contributions during the period the employee was furloughed without pay.
On May 12, 2020, the IRS issued two notices providing relief and guidance to employers sponsoring Section 125 Cafeteria Plans, health flexible spending accounts (health FSAs), dependent care assistance programs (DCAPs), and qualified high deductible health plans (HDHPs). Under the relief, an employer is able to amend its Section 125 plan to allow employees to make salary-reduction contributions under the plan such as making a new election for medical coverage or health FSA or dependent-care account, revoking or modifying existing elections. The plan amendments are not a requirement and are at the employer’s discretion.
This has been an unprecedented experience for almost all of us, and the impact going forward is still being determined, but the benefit of frequent and regular communication with employees cannot be overstated.
Just as the shift to remote work arrangements created new challenges for individuals with spouses also working from home, and the responsibilities that came with younger children home from school or day care, the return to the workplace will also require an adjustment period as well.
The promotion of your company’s benefits, such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), telemedicine, wellness, and financial education, can all play a role in easing the transition and helping employees maintain their physical, emotional and financial well-being as they return to your workplace. Now more than ever, it’s important to maintain perspective….Take a breath; take a break; be thankful, and be grateful.
Wishing you good health and happiness!