As workplace and worker issues evolve over time in the pandemic, many employers are now considering their responsibilities when they begin to reopen. While many expect to reopen slowly, concerns about keeping the workplace safe remain a focus, especially for those that were closed entirely for the last few months. Below are some reopening tips:
Consider a slow reopening. Remembering that COVID-19 is not gone and at best we have “flattened the curve,” employees and many members of the public remain concerned about exposure. The simple truth is that the only thing which is certain about reopening our workplaces is that we don’t really know what that will be like. Therefore, consider a reopening that starts slowly, bringing employees back in waves depending on operational needs.
Consider continuing telework for some employees. One upside to businesses being closed is that it has significantly advanced the concept of telework. Many employers who wouldn’t even consider it for their employees before, now acknowledge that it can work. Let’s face it, though, it doesn’t work for everyone. Those with young children or other distractions at home, or those who just really need the structure of going to work somewhere other than home, don’t telework well. For all others who do, employers should consider continuing, at least part-time, telework arrangements. It makes social distancing in the workplace easier and can ultimately save money.
Prepare the workplace for the return of employees. COVID-19 may surely end the trend of open or communal workspaces. Those work arrangements don’t foster social distancing and reopening work sites does not signal eradication of the virus. We know that won’t happen without a vaccine and treatment. Reorganizing workspaces to spread workers out consistent with social distancing, is necessary when possible. Some advisors suggest removing the coffee machines and other devices that are commonly used (we don’t mean the copiers), and going back to disposable cups, plates, and silverware. Minimally, keep sanitizer near office machines, including the Keurig, and signs that remind employees to wash their hands and the surfaces that they touch. Similarly, employees should be discouraged from gathering in common areas and restrict the number to that which can maintain social distance. Take a tip from Costco and other large stores, and create one-way travel around the workplace if possible.
Provide appropriate protection. Depending on the circumstances and risks presented for each business or municipality, various measures should be considered. This would include the required use of masks, social distancing, and hygiene protocol, including the use of disposable gloves. Employers may find it prudent to utilize masks for employees in compliance with OSHA and CDC guidelines and strict requirements with social distancing, use of disposable gloves, and a regimen of timely sanitation measures to reduce any potential exposure or contact of the virus in the workplace. Mandating these types of safety precautions will provide a defense to any potential worker claim under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and Illinois Occupational Diseases Act, as the employee could not establish an exposure due to the implementation of these procedures. Likewise, requiring invitees and patrons of the businesses and municipalities to wear masks (CDC recommended masks are not required), along with requirements of social distancing while on the premises, will ensure a potential exposure on the premises would be less likely.
Don’t be reluctant to take control. The EEOC issued guidance weeks ago that employers can require employee testing for the coronavirus. Yesterday, the Illinois Department of Public Health issued guidance stating that community testing sites are available for the following testing:
Testing at the community-based testing sites is now available for people who:
- Have COVID-19 symptoms (cough, shortness of breath and fever) or
- Have a risk factor, such as contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19 or a compromised immune system or a serious chronic medical condition
Testing at the community-based testing sites is also available for those with or without symptoms who:
- Work in a health care facility
- Work in correctional facilities, such as jails or prisons
- Work as a government employee
- Serve as first responders, such as paramedics, emergency medical technicians, law enforcement officers, or firefighters
- Support critical infrastructures, such as workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, gas stations, public utilities, factories, childcare, and sanitation.
Similarly, continue to enforce the policy that employees who come to work showing symptoms of respiratory illness will be immediately isolated and sent home for 14 days or until they submit a note from a doctor that they are not positive for COVID-19.
Get written authorization to release COVID-19 information. Ask employees when you reopen to authorize the disclosure of their identity to co-workers and others with whom they had contact in the event they test positive at some point. It is far better to have that advanced authorization than to scramble for it or be unsure of what to do in the event of a positive test result for an employee.
Put it in writing. Finally, give employees a written copy of the new workplace “rules.” While plenty of things have changed with regards to employees, one adage holds true that “if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen.” Like any workplace rule, make sure the employer’s expectations are communicated clearly to employees.