Employers: Plan Now for the Coronavirus

March 05, 2020 | From HRCalifornia Extra

by Katie Culliton, Editor, CalChamber

The noises are everywhere — coughs, sniffles and sneezes. You’re surrounded. And then, before you know it, you’re the one who’s sick. During this time of year, it’s hard to avoid colds and viruses, especially when your co-workers are bringing them into work.

While the traditional flu has been especially severe this season, one virus in particular — the coronavirus — is making global headlines. How the coronavirus will affect the United States is unclear, but employers should begin to think about preventative measures, business continuity needs and how their employees may be affected.

Employees’ Top Pet Peeve

More than 87 percent of workers find it at least somewhat annoying when their co-workers come to work sick, according to a recent Zety survey. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to see why, as nine out of 10 people have come into work with cold and flu symptoms, according to a separate October 2019 Robert Half survey.

Co-workers coming into work sick topped the Zety survey’s list of office pet peeves that includes malfunctioning hardware, slow computers and internet, and people arranging meetings that could have been an email. But, statistically, it seems the same people who come into work sick are also the ones annoyed when others do the same.

The reason? Because more than half of those who come into the office with a cold or the flu (54 percent) said they do so because they have too much work on their plate, which may also be why they don’t want to catch a virus from their co-workers. Another 40 percent don't want to use sick time, 34 percent feel pressure from their employer to be present and 25 percent are encouraged by the fact that their co-workers are already coming in sick.

Studies clearly show that co-workers will get each other sick, so what should employers do when a potential global pandemic threatens?

Plan and Be Flexible

In a February 25 media briefing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning: The question is no longer if the coronavirus will hit the United States, but rather when it will hit and how many people will experience severe illnesses. It recommends beginning to think about preventative measures and the associated potential secondary measure, like childcare if schools or day cares close.

The CDC hopes that employers will begin to respond in a flexible way to differing levels of severity and to refine their business response plans as needed. Given the uncertainty that surrounds a new virus outbreak, the CDC’s guidance and advice likely will be fluid and subject to change as conditions develop.

Non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) — which include social distancing measures designed to keep people who are sick away from others — are considered some of the CDC’s most important tools. NPIs, such as school closures, cancelling mass gatherings and using electronic methods to replace in-person meetings, are most effective when they’re layered.

Currently, the CDC recommends businesses perform routine environmental cleaning of frequently touched areas, such as workstations, countertops and doorknobs, and provide disposable wipes to employees so that commonly-used surfaces, such as keyboards, remote controls and desks, can be wiped down before each use. Employers may also want to stagger shifts to minimize exposure between co-workers.

Some NPIs may result in loss of income if the employee does not have sick time available and missed work, either due to workers with symptoms of an illness staying home or workers staying home to watch their children due to lack of childcare. Additionally, some measures may require businesses to shut down temporarily. These are things businesses can plan for now by instituting preventative measures.

For many businesses, some (if not all) work can be performed away from the brick and mortar office building — telecommuting provides a helpful alternative to missed work and productivity.

Working Remotely

Some employers already maintain a telecommuting policy, while others are starting to contemplate the idea and identifying which employees could perform their job away from the office. Either way, now is a good time to develop or review your company’s telecommuting policy. A good telecommuting policy contains:

  • The criteria for assessing whether an employee can work remotely;
  • How to handle home office expenses and other telecommuting expenses and logistics;
  • How managers can expect to manage productivity and adherence to company policies;
  • How to handle off-the-clock issues if the employee is nonexempt; and
  • Confidentiality and privacy policies, including how the employee is monitored.

A telecommuting agreement describes the expectations your company has of employees who work remotely.

Additional considerations include computer equipment, software and employer-provided telephones. Keep in mind that not all employees may perform jobs that are conducive to telecommuting; however, for those who can, putting a process in place will help mitigate some of the unintended consequences during flu or other viral outbreaks.

Once you have these plans and policies in place, it will be easier to evaluate your business and employees’ needs during an outbreak of the coronavirus or any new virus in the future.

Employers with workforces that can’t work remotely should review the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus, which is updated as additional information becomes available.

School and Childcare Closures

Japan shocked the world when it closed all schools for one month to pre-empt widespread coronavirus outbreaks. The CDC warns that you may see similar actions in the U.S., alerting in its media briefing that parents should ask their school superintendents what the plan for school closures and dismissals would be in a coronavirus outbreak.

In California, employers with 25 or more employees working at the same location must permit employees to take time off to participate in certain school or child care activities.

The employee can also use time off to address a “child care provider or school emergency.” This emergency usage isn’t limited to eight hours per calendar month, but the employee must give notice to the employer.

A child care provider or school emergency includes closure or unexpected unavailability of the school or child care provider, excluding planned holidays. You can require the employee to first use existing vacation, PTO or other personal leave, unless prohibited by a collective bargaining agreement. The employee may also use time off without pay for this purpose, to the extent made available by the employer.

If schools and day cares in your area close for an extended period of time, be prepared by planning for such closures now. Employers may be able to mitigate any workplace productivity losses by allowing employees to work from home if they’re unable to find child care during a coronavirus outbreak.

Lessons for Employers

Employers should remain flexible for how the coronavirus may affect their community and employees, but plan now by:

  • Encouraging workers to use the same hygiene-related precautions and guidance as they would to stop the flu. Employees should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds; avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth; use hand sanitizer; and stay home if they’re feeling ill.
  • Reviewing OSHA guidance on the coronavirus, including a reference to California’s Aerosol Transmissible Disease Standards, which applies to workplaces at high risk for infectious diseases such as hospitals, clinics, emergency medical services, laboratories, prisons and homeless shelters but may provide useful guidance to other employers.
  • Anticipating for the worst — assess your business needs and determine whether business can continue even when employees aren’t physically present at work. This includes reviewing your telecommuting policies.
  • Reminding employees of your sick leave policy, as well as school or child care activities policy.