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COVID-19 pandemic: How to prepare your business

News about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19 or “the coronavirus”) pandemic understandably can be unsettling, but infectious disease outbreaks need not induce panic.

By being well versed in the facts, business leaders can play a critical role in soothing employees’ concerns, modeling healthy behaviors and keeping their workplaces relatively productive – all while not running afoul of related laws and regulations.

Because public health conditions can change rapidly, it’s critical for employers to know:

  1. How to help protect employees and customers
  2. How to continue business operations during a pandemic
  3. How to rely on official sources to stay informed
  4. How to manage and mitigate organizational risks
  5. How to navigate potential legal issues that may arise

With those needs in mind, here’s what you need to know to plan, prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learn the best practices to protect employees, customers and your business in Insperity’s webinar “COVID-19: Navigating Through a Pandemic” hosted by Roger Nicholson, vice president of field operations, and Kelly Yeates, vice president of service operations.

1. How to help protect employees and customers

During any crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic, safety comes first.

While there’s no guarantee that your employees, customers and business will remain unharmed, there are simple safety measures you can enact to help keep everyone out of harm’s way.

The following strategies are good starting points.

Familiarize yourself with the latest understanding of the COVID-19 virus

In order to protect employees and customers, ensure that you understand the basics of how this virus is spread, some of the common symptoms and recommendations to avoid catching the virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is spread:

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
  • Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
  • When these droplets land in the mouths or noses of nearby people — or when the droplets are inhaled into the lungs.

Also, according to the CDC, these common symptoms of COVID-19 typically appear 2-14 days after exposure:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

The CDC notes that individuals can be asymptomatic yet still carry and spread the virus.

Furthermore, in light of what is presently known about the disease, the CDC recommends the following to reduce the likelihood that you catch or spread the virus:

  • Clean your hands often.
  • Avoid close contact with others, particularly large groups – a practice commonly referred to as “social distancing.”
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes.
  • Wear a face mask if you’re sick.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces frequently.

For more information on how the disease is transmitted, symptoms and what to do if you’re sick, please monitor the CDC website.

For business leaders managing workplaces or team members in multiple states, it may be helpful to track the number and geographic location of reported cases nationwide through the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering’s map: Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by Johns Hopkins CSSE.

Adapt your sick leave and other attendance policies

  1. If someone is sick, encourage them to stay home. Avoid the risk of spreading their illness, whether its COVID-19 or the common cold, to your workforce and customers. An abundance of caution may not only help contain the spread but also reassure everyone that you’re concerned about and committed to their safety.
  2. If your business is strict about requiring a doctor’s note to validate an employee’s condition or return to work, then temporarily disband that policy — particularly for employees suffering from acute respiratory illness.

    This choice is as much about encouraging people to play it safe when sick by staying home as it is about being supportive of the local medical community. During a pandemic, hospitals and health care workers can become overwhelmed, making it difficult to obtain such documentation in a timely manner.
  3. If an employee’s family member is sick, allow the employee to stay home to provide continuous care. Employees who appear well but who live with a family member diagnosed with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor. (Refer to the CDC on how to conduct a risk assessment regarding potential exposure.)
  4. Consider creating a COVID-19 incubation leave policy to allow employees who are suspected of having the virus to take time off work and isolate themselves.

    This is another example of how proactive, compassionate care may not only help protect against the spread between your employees and clients but also within the community (or communities) in which you do business. Consult your legal counsel on how to best implement this type of policy.

Sanitation and hygiene

  1. Position messaging posters in the workplace where they’re likely to be seen to encourage employees to stay home when sick, teach proper cough and sneeze etiquette and reinforce the basics of hand hygiene.
  2. Provide sufficient soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel, paper towels and other supplies as needed in the workplace to encourage hand hygiene.
  3. Regularly clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as desks, counter tops, handles and doorknobs. Provide disposable wipes so that employees can wipe commonly used surfaces before each use.
  4. Encourage everyone to refrain, as much as possible, from behaviors that may spread the virus in the workplace. For instance, eschew shaking hands in favor of a simple nod when greeting others. Minimize the sharing of cups, bowls and other items in common areas.

Helpful resources:

Travel and events

  1. Consider canceling non-essential business travel per CDC and Department of State travel guidance.
  2. Cancel or postpone all non-essential work meetings and large gatherings. When meetings are essential, use technology as much as possible to provide virtual meeting spaces.
  3. Assess whether in-bound materials coming from an outbreak area should be quarantined to avoid surface transmission to employees.

Helpful resources:

2. How to continue business operations during a pandemic

No business leader wants to shut their business down if they don’t have to.

For certain industries, like professional sports or concerts, it’s in the public’s best interest to shutter immediately.

For many other types of companies, business can continue in some form, albeit with extra safety precautions.

Use these considerations to keep your business running during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Establish a reliable communication process.

It’s important to keep employees and business partners abreast of your infectious disease outbreak response plans and latest COVID-19 pandemic information.

Involve your employees in developing and updating your plan. Share it widely through email, posted notices and by allotting time in meetings to review plans.

Explain what human resources policies, workplace and leave flexibilities, and pay and benefits will be available or amended and for how long.

If you don’t have one already, create an internal crisis communications plan. The following Insperity blog posts might be useful starting points:

2. If possible, be flexible with how people work.

Allow employees to work remotely if your business can accommodate it. Or allow staggered shifts, to support social distancing strategies.

If the idea of remote employees is new to you, these resources might be helpful:

3. Create redundancy in critical operations.

The unfortunate reality is that a pandemic is unpredictable. It might not impact your business right away, or it might affect many of your employees in a sudden, dramatic fashion.

To protect your business optimally, create an action plan that addresses several scenarios. Central to that plan should be efforts to create redundancy in mission-critical operations.

The first step is to identify critical business functions and all the resources key to their success, including:

  • Key personnel
  • Related clients
  • Supplies and materials required

Once you’ve identified these aspects, create contingency plans for each category.   

Identify (and potentially train) backups for key persons. Prioritize your customers and create client communications in case you must temporarily suspend your service for any or all of them. Secure and stockpile extra supplies in the event of supply chain disruptions related to the virus itself or public panic.

Some helpful resources for this include:

3. Rely on official sources to keep informed

The COVID-19 pandemic is a fluid situation. Thus, additional guidance, restrictions and best practices will evolve as the situation progresses. To best prioritize the safety of employees, customers and the broader public, it’s vital to stay up to date on the latest guidance.

The CDC is working with the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. government to coordinate U.S. public health response to this disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is also providing information that includes updates on conditions in countries around the world.

The following links can provide a starting point for staying current:

4. How to manage and mitigate organizational risks

During an unprecedented crisis of this magnitude – and in addition to monitoring the aforementioned websites, it’s vital that business leaders continuously assess risk and consider consulting legal counsel regarding every aspect of business operations.

This includes employee relations.

Employer decisions should always be based on non-discriminatory, objective standards and sources of information that can reasonably be relied upon. Amid a pandemic, these sources include federal, state and local entities as well as occupational health providers.

If your company is developing, for example, an incubation period leave policy, base your decisions on the most current data received from the CDC, WHO or other official sources. In other words, resist the temptation to make decisions based on rumors or remarks made by unvetted sources.

General guidelines for making risk management policies include the following core principles:

  • Use only official sources of public health guidance to determine the risks of COVID-19 for your business.
  • Don’t determine risk based on an employee’s race, country of origin or your direct observations of an employee’s health condition.
  • Maintain the confidentiality of staff with confirmed COVID-19 and address it as you would any other confidential employee issue.

Remember: Certain employees may be more at risk. This subcategory includes employees who travel frequently, whose duties include public-facing contact and those with already vulnerable immune systems.

Again, if you feel uncertain or have questions, contact your legal counsel.

Potentially helpful resources:

The WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Such a declaration indicates the infectious disease outbreak may, over time, pose a direct threat in U.S. workplaces.

It may also raise potential employment law compliance issues for employers under U.S. federal, state and local statutes.

Conceivable future legal issues that may arise in the wake of the current pandemic include:

  • Potential discrimination allegations and lawsuits are possible from COVID-19-related restrictions. This is more apt to happen if employer decisions are based on fear rather than fact.

    For example, additional quarantine requirements shouldn’t be imposed on people simply because they’re citizens of a particular geography that’s particularly hard hit by the virus.
  • If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform the rest of the staff in that work location so they may also be tested. Maintain confidentiality as required by ADA.
  • Employers shouldn’t take punitive action because of an employee’s personal travel plans.
  • Because OSHA requires employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace for all employees, it also protects employees from being forced to engage in work that they feel is dangerous or they are ill-prepared for.

    Travel for work to a country experiencing a widespread outbreak may be considered dangerous in this circumstance. Seek outside council if there are any related concerns.

Potential employment law compliance issues (with corresponding, related Insperity blog posts) include:

Ultimately, and to reiterate, employers should comply with current public health guidelines from official sources as well as consult local and state laws where there is a business presence.

If there are questions, legal counsel is vital not only to protecting the well-being of one’s team but also guarding against potentially costly litigation for the business.

Helpful resources:

Insperity’s commitment to clients

Insperity has supported small to medium-sized businesses for more than 30 years. We understand we are in uncharted territory and want to ensure you that we are prepared and here to support our clients through this time of uncertainty. 

Our top priority is the health and safety of our employees, clients and the communities where we live and work.

We have an emergency planning team in place that is closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19 and the CDC guidance regarding the situation.

Should the impacts of COVID-19 worsen, we are confident in our ability to respond accordingly and continue delivering the premium level of service to which you are accustomed. We have a well-documented business continuity plan that is equipped to monitor and assist with the safety of our team members without interruption to our clients and their employees.

Insperity will continue to monitor the situation and guide its clients accordingly. Clients who have questions are encouraged to contact their HR specialist, account executive or client liaison.