Employers Dealing With Coronavirus

The recent outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and publicity surrounding its spread in the United States is generating a lot of press, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of confusion. Here’s a few tips you may want to consider.

First and most importantly, you need to understand and properly apply Federal and state law regarding disabilities, illnesses, and medical leave. As a threshold matter, if you have 50 or more employees, you are governed by the Federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and in California, by the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). In Oregon, if you have 25 or more employees, you are governed by the Oregon Family Leave Act (OFLA). In most cases, if you’re covered by these laws, an employee either is seriously ill herself, or has a close family member fall seriously ill, is eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and thereafter has the right to return to work at no career penalty and free from discipline for having taken the medical leave. The definitions of what constitutes a “close family member” are slightly different under each law, but my suggestion is to be generous in your own interpretation of what a close family member might be, particularly during a time of heightened public anxiety about sickness and illness.

Workers in California and many (but not all) workers in the City of Portland, Oregon are also entitled to statutory paid sick days even if there is no employer policy providing these.

It’s very important to communicate to your employees that if they or their family fall ill, that they can take time away from work without penalty. Make sure your people know that you want them to be healthy and to be able to return to work with their minds free from the anxiety of a health issue at home. If they can work from home (see below) encourage them to try that rather than taking leave; if you’re not satisfied with their productivity, then encourage them to use their leave rights rather than move down a disciplinary or remedial path. Supporting your workers like this will increase morale, reduce turnover, and will tend to keep you on the right side of the law.

There’s a lot you can do to minimize the spread of any contagion, including COVID-19. Some of these things are also generally enlightened practices for even after this issue passes.

Encourage your employees to wash their hands often. Make sure that your restroom and kitchen facilities reliably generate clean, hot running water. Particularly food service employers want to make sure that their employees know how to properly wash their hands: rubbing the palms together is not enough! Roll up those sleeves, wash the backs, wash up to the wrists, get the spaces between the fingers and the folds of the hands. Don’t forget the thumbs!

Another note to food service employers: your state has laws regulating the health of your workers. Let’s be candid: the labor needs of a restaurant are such that you can’t afford to have too many workers out at any one time, and it’s sometimes a challenge to get all the workers you have to show up on time for their assigned shifts to begin with. The employees, in turn, are not usually anxious to forego earning income and staying home sick. I get it — on both sides of that equation — but the result of this is employers turning a blind eye to employees working while they’re sick. It’s particularly critical in this time of heightened awareness to pay attention to the health of your employees and not be afraid to send them home if they’re not healthy enough to be handling food that your customers are going to eat. Expect local health inspection authorities to be particularly concerned with this issue should they make an unannounced inspection. My strong advice is, don’t give those inspectors anything to write you up for — if you see or hear an employee coughing or sneezing, don’t turn a blind eye to it, take action to make sure that you’re serving up safe food. If nothing else, consider the practical risks: you don’t want to be the restaurant that your local newspaper profiles for spreading disease by ignoring a worker’s symptoms during a time the public in general is concerned about a little-understood contagious illness.

Beware of fomites! A “fomite” is an inanimate object which can hold and transfer microorganisms by touch. Examples likely to be present at modern workplaces include doorknobs, handles on cabinets, elevator buttons, telephones, keyboards, computer mice, and copy machines. Hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes can be used where possible (without damaging the equipment, obviously) and employees should be encouraged to periodically disinfect these kinds of objects, especially when they are shared among many people. If you don’t already use one, it may be time to start using a handsfree set on your desk telephone so you don’t have to worry about potentially turning the handset receiver into a fomite. Assign someone the job of periodically disinfecting doorknobs and elevator buttons.

I’ve heard and ready some giving advice to avoid shaking hands. I’m not sure that’s culturally realistic; the handshake is an important ritual of our society. My suggestion, instead, is to keep hand sanitizer around, and use it (and offer it) during greetings. After a first draft of this post, I learned that a lot of supermarkets and drug stores are experiencing runs on commercially-prepared hand sanitizers, so I found an easy recipe: one part rubbing alcohol to two parts aloe vera gel. If it comes out too thick for your preference, dilute it with small amounts of distilled water.

I’ve also heard jokes about using tequila or vodka to disinfect. Obviously, drinking liquor may be a pleasant thing for some, but most booze is not a good topical disinfectant because most liquors sold in stores are 80 proof, or 40% alcohol, and you need at least 60% concentration, or 120 proof, before you get a reliable result in killing those nasty germs. “It’s better than nothing!” is one response, but I’m here to tell you that the only result of pouring gin on your hands and rubbing it around is you’re going to walk around smelling like a distillery. (Not to mention the particularly poor example that sets for for your employees!)

Health care industry workers regularly use nitrile gloves and paper face masks to diminish the risk of infection. Retail employers may want to consider this as a possibility also, for those who are in frequent contact with members of the public or otherwise are dealing with facilities that, necessarily, are going to be visited and used by a large number of people. This won’t be appropriate for all places and settings, necessarily, but you should give some thought to elevating workplace safety during a time of concern about an as-yet little-understood disease entering circulation as compared to the importance of the trade dress and image you present to the public.

A lot of businesses are restricting travel, meetings, and even encouraging remote work. This isn’t a bad idea anyway, because travel and meetings carry costs of both time and expense; remote work is mostly (though not universally) thought of as a benefit for those who are able to do it. If you haven’t begun incorporating remote meeting technology, now is a good time to start learning how to do it. I’ve participated in many meetings with colleagues via Skype (or one of its competitors) and the experience is usually rich enough that meaningful exchanges and decisions can be made. You may find that after some transition and setup time, you and your employees enjoy having meetings done in this way and things can get done faster and with less time commuting.

If you’re going to use this as an opportunity to transition to a workplace that integrates more remote work, do take note: it’s your obligation as the employer to provide the equipment to your employees to do this. If your employee has private equipment at home that they wish to use, that’s fine, but you need to make the equipment available to the employees at no cost to them if need be. But trust me, the upsides of making this investment are potentially great: in most cases, your employees’ morale will improve when they don’t have to commute in traffic or public transit to get to a central office. And in the long run, you may find that a couple hundred dollars’ worth of computer equipment is a lot cheaper than maintaining a large physical plant to get all your workers in one place!

Finally, to get back to the immediate health issue of coronavirus, there’s a few things to keep in mind. As of the date I’m writing this, it’s suspected there are several hundred cases of coronavirus in the U.S.A., and that the pathogen has been in circulation here for at least a month before the publicity began moving across the media in mid-February. Understand what is known about coronavirus and put that in perspective: it’s a serious illness with symptoms similar to the flu, which also is a serious illness that we all have been dealing with for all of our lives. Antibiotics aren’t going to work on coronavirus, and there isn’t likely going to be a vaccine for COVID-19 for quite some time. This means that this is now part of our general public health environment, and we should recognize that our medical, scientific, and governmental institutions are going to need to adapt to it.

To sum up: there’s a new kind of illness out there, and it’s reminded us all that workplace safety includes protecting your employees and your customers from infectious diseases. Keep your workplace clean and disinfected. Explore ways to increase remote work and minimize the number of in-person meetings and travel needed to get the work done. See if you can leverage that necessity into an opportunity to boost morale and maybe even reduce overhead. You need to provide the equipment and be flexible in your thinking to make that possible, so remember to use your problem-solving skills. A few thousand dollars worth of computer equipment to enable those workers who can work remotely to do so is a great deal less expensive than having a lot of workers out sick for weeks at a time.

And most of all, communicate honestly and supportively with your employees that if they do need to take time away because of illness, they’re not going to be fired or punished if they do get sick or need to care for their families. Let them know that you’ve got their backs, and that your priority is that they stay healthy or get back to being healthy as soon as possible.