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Returning to work in the COVID-19 environment and what it means for your business and employees

By Todd Chapman

The coronavirus pandemic continues to have an unprecedented effect on daily life. All of us are looking forward to the future and a return to normalcy. Many states have begun the process of lifting shelter-in-place orders or re-evaluating which industries are considered essential. It is critical to have a plan in place to restart businesses and bring facilities back online, but that’s easier said than done.

Tractical plan considerations

Regardless of your current operational status, the next few months will look different as demands for a safe work environment increase. Consider these tactical strategies when developing your plan. Each plan should include these three essential steps to return to work safely.

1. Preparing the workforce

Managing the health and wellness of employees, clients and customers will be critical. There are six groups to identify and consider when planning to return to work. They range from those most likely to remain at home to those most eligible and likely to return to work.

Those diagnosed or symptomatic of COVID-19

These employees should shelter at home for a minimum of 14 days and try to access definitive testing to confirm COVID-19 diagnosis. You will need to determine the appropriate classification and what program this employee would come under. Workers’ Compensation could apply if it was proven they contracted COVID at work, FFCRA (Families First Coronavirus Response Act) for paid sick leave up to 80 hours or other traditional measures like sick pay, PTO, short term disability and FMLA are other thoughts.

Those who can continue to work from home

For those in this group consider maintaining their work from home environment where the business allows.

Those at higher risk for severe illness

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this includes all employees 65 years or older and/or people of all ages that have underlying medical conditions such as chronic lung disease, serious cases of asthma, heart conditions, compromised immune systems, obesity, diabetes, kidney and liver disease.  For this group considers maintaining a work from home environment and/or flexible work schedule.  As noted above, determining the appropriate classification and program(s) to help this group will be important.

Those with childcare or family care issues

Considering a work-from-home or flexible work schedule will be important. Elder care may also be problematic for some employees. The FFCRA, emergency family and medical leave expansion act and traditional PTO and sick pay may be solutions.

Those with expressed concerns or anxiety regarding returning to a work environment

Establish a communication process and return to work contact to address individual employee concerns.  Explain the precautions and protocols being taken and make reasonable accommodations where possible.

Those who can and will return to work in an office environment/physical place of business

Advance planning and communication enables employees to make the appropriate transition arrangements. Explain the health and safety protocols for employees and customers as well as the employees’ responsibilities as such. Again, establish a communication process and return to work contact.

2. Prepare the workspace

There are many factors to consider before organizations reopen their doors. Many of these considerations are workplace-specific and could be more involved depending on the industry you operate in.

At a minimum consider the following: If facilities have been idle, it would be prudent to inspect the building envelope, building interior, sprinkler system, mechanical systems and to change air filters before employees return. Air flow is an important step in mitigating the transmission of COVID-19 and ventilation systems should be brought up to operating speed well before the normal occupancy times and for a period thereafter. Those systems should not be completely shut off on weekends. Drinking water should also be flushed before use.

Cleaning of the workspace in this unique, active pandemic environment can be challenging. Businesses should regularly sanitize their facility with a focus on cleaning and disinfecting all frequently touched surfaces. Workers should be discouraged from using other workers’ tools, equipment, phones, offices and desks. Install hygiene stations with hand washing soap, sanitizers and paper towels. Add no touch waste receptacles for discarded wipes, gloves, mask, etc. Post CDC hygiene protocols throughout the workspace in highly visible areas. Lastly, determine an appropriate testing protocol. Temperature testing is the most viable testing path currently available for employers to determine if employees or visitors are potentially sick.

For more specific help, OSHA recently released a risk pyramid of classifications and protocols regarding reopening facilities (osha.gov/covid-19).

3. Managing a physical distancing environment

This step starts with identifying personnel to enforce and monitor the environment. Employees should be staggered and customer traffic altered to reduce interaction and increase distancing. All non-essential travel and visitors should be limited when possible. Determine key “touch points” or common points in the workspace where people routinely touch the same spot throughout the day and implement changes. For example, for elevators: ask building management to re-program facility access cards to automatically take individuals to the correct floor or place hand sanitizer in the elevator bank. Install distancing measures like plexiglass extensions on cubicles, doors on offices and prohibit the use of common areas, kitchens or break rooms. Other ideas include designating certain high traffic hallways as one way.  Probably the most important action in managing a physical distancing environment is to immediately quarantine those that are symptomatic.

While resuming operations following the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like a daunting task, businesses don’t have to go at it alone. To help with this process, organizations can seek the help of their insurance professionals and legal counsel along with local and state guidelines, OSHA, the CDC and industry and trade groups to determine what actions they need to take to ensure their business reopens smoothly.

Todd Chapman is Executive Vice President and P&C Practice Leader for USI. Reach Todd at 513-852-6375 or via email at todd.chapman@usi.com

Featured image at top: Drew Beamer/Unsplash

About the Goering Center for Family & Private Business
Established in 1989, the Goering Center serves more than 400 member companies, making it North America’s largest university-based educational non-profit center for family and private businesses. The Center’s mission is to nurture and educate family and private businesses to drive a vibrant economy. Affiliation with the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati provides access to a vast resource of business programing and expertise. Goering Center members receive real-world insights that enlighten, strengthen and prolong family and private business success. For more information on the Center, participation and membership visit goering.uc.edu.

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