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Lessons Learned from COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic shows us the widespread impacts an uncontrollable situation can have. While every company is different, below are some precautionary actions to consider while facing a potential emergency.

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The coronavirus pandemic shows us the widespread impacts an uncontrollable situation can have. While every company is different, below are some precautionary actions to consider while facing a potential emergency.

Advise sick employees to stay home: Make it clear to employees who are ill and/or have been exposed that they need to go home and stay out of the workplace until given the all-clear. While inconvenient, it is better to handle the absence of one employee than to have several people out sick or, even worse, to have your business shut down for 14 days or more for quarantine and deep-cleaning.

Understand the situation of your employees: If you have an employee whose child’s school is closed or who is put under quarantine while traveling or at home, offer whatever assistance you can. Perhaps extend leave time and/or allow them to work from home so they are not losing wages, and you are not missing their productivity while keeping them from infecting your other employees.

Create, expand, or modify your paid time off policies: If you have paid time off policies, consider relaxing them or providing extra days off to encourage employees to stay home when needed and help compensate for lost wages. If you don’t have a paid time off policy, consider creating one for a special circumstance such as a state of emergency.

Institute work-from-home policies and procedures: Review your operations and determine if there are positions and duties that can be handled remotely. If so, develop policies and procedures to allow employees to work from home.

Review business travel policy: If you have employees who travel for business to visit clients or vendors or to attend conferences, balance each interaction to determine the value and need with the risk for exposure and workplace contamination. You also need to evaluate where and how the employee will be traveling, as some areas and modes of transportation have higher incidents of exposure than others.

Ensure continuity of work and information: Prepare your company for the long-term absence of one or more employees or the departure from regular procedures. Be sure everyone is backing up information and leaving necessary materials and files in the office unless they will be working remotely. Cross-train employees to cover if one person is absent. Use web conferencing or conference calls instead of in-person meetings.

Note: You can implement any company policy as a limited-time practice due to special circumstances, so don’t fear that making temporary accommodations will mean a regular commitment. Clearly state that these practices will be revoked on a certain date or once the emergency has passed and follow up to notify employees of the expiration date.

Some Laws to Consider

There are several regulatory requirements to consider when dealing with employees who are or whose family members are sick or in quarantine. In addition to any paid time off benefits (i.e., vacation, sick, and/or personal days) you may offer, you often have to manage multiple leave laws at the same time.

Leave laws:

Large employers (50 or more employees):

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): FMLA provides qualified employees up to 12 weeks (in most cases) of unpaid job- and benefit-protection that usually runs concurrently with any paid time off or leaves. There are very strict requirements for employers to follow regarding notification, tracking, and documentation to stay in compliance, so timely response and accurate tracking are crucial. Length of protected leave is determined by a certification from the health care provider.

Mid-size employers (15 or more employees):

  • Americans with Disabilities Act and the Amendments Act of 2008 (ADA and ADAAA): ADA and ADAAA requires employers to offer reasonable accommodation such as a leave of absence to employees who are disabled, even if temporarily. Depending on the severity of symptoms, an employee’s need for leave may be necessary as a reasonable accommodation.

All or most employers:

  • State and local sick leave laws: While there is no federal law mandating sick time, 12 states, and Washington, D.C., as well as several cities and counties, have implemented sick leave laws covering most employers with variations in number of employees, amount of time, and if it is paid or unpaid.
  • State paid disability leave: Some states have paid disability laws to cover employees for extended absences.  These insurance programs are usually run through the state, but employers must notify employees of the benefit and may need to assist them with paperwork.
  • State family and medical leave laws: Some states have laws similar to FMLA which may have different parameters including covered reasons for leave, protected leave times, and different look-back periods. These leaves run concurrently with FMLA and other paid time off or leaves.

Wage-and-hour laws:

It is important to know the laws to properly pay employees when they work or when they cannot.

  • Hourly, non-exempt employees are only paid for time actually worked, so they usually do not need to be paid if they are sent home or not called into work at any point. However, some state and local predictive scheduling laws require pay for some time the employee is scheduled but is sent home.
  • Salaried, exempt employees must be paid in accordance with FLSA regulations. One exemption test is being paid a salary (defined as “a wage guarantee”), so reducing their salary for a partial week when they are willing and able to work may jeopardize their exempt status (therefore making them non-exempt and entitled to overtime).