Now that the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus, otherwise known as COViD-19, in the United States are rising, employers should look for ways to protect their employees and workplace. While the coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause various illnesses, from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), COViD-19 is a new strain that had not been previously identified in humans. As a result, employers should strive to educate themselves and their employees about COViD-19 and how it affects the workplace.
However, an employer's role is complicated by various legal issues touching upon safety, employee health, job functions and business travel. An employer should consider certain measures to better prepare and protect its employees and the workplace.
At this time, there are no laws or regulations specifically addressing an employer's legal obligations relating to COViD-19. However, employers should regularly consult the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the most current information on the coronvirus, including guidance for businesses. Also, employers must always be mindful the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. Under this clause, an employer is required to furnish each worker with "employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm." While this clause applies to a wide array of different situations, in the case of CoViD-19, it essentially requires an employer to ensure that their employees have a safe and healthy workplace.
In addition, the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standard issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that employers provide their employees with certain equipment - including gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory devices - when particular hazards may cause injury or impairment. Also, OSHA has deemed the coronavirus a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job and, therefore, an employer must record any such cases on the OSHA 300 log.
An employer should also consider workplace strategies relating to COViD-19, along with other infectious diseases. For example:
- Provide a letter to employees with guidance on COVID-19;
- Consider implementing a contagious disease policy to communicate to employees how the virus and other infectious diseases will be addressed in the workplace;
- Review information about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to ensure policies comply with federal laws;
- Evaluate FMLA criteria about whether an employee is eligible for leave for coronavirus-related conditions; and
- For those covered under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), consider privacy concerns.
Education as to the transmission and symptoms of COViD-19 is key to allaying fears and reducing misinformation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COViD-19 can be transmitted person-to-person, specifically through respiratory secretions, e.g., coughing and sneezing.
It is crucial that everyone is aware of the symptoms of COViD-19. Common signs of the virus are:
- Respiratory symptoms;
- Shortness of breath; and
- Breathing difficulties.
Severe cases may cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure or death.
Educating employees on the facts of COViD-19 will encourage communication and cooperation between employees and management on measures to ensure the health and safety of the workplace. Further, it would be prudent to:
- Determine how to address an infectious disease in the workplace;
- Evaluate additional workplace issues relating to infectious diseases;
- Consider how to address an employee with an infectious disease; and
- For employees who are currently in an affected region or have just returned, determine whether that employee may be required to undergo a medical examination.
Reducing Potential Exposure to the Coronavirus
As with most infectious diseases, there are certain precautionary measures an employer can take to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. For example, employees should be strongly urged to:
- Wash their hands frequently with soap and water;
- Hand sanitizers/wipes are also a good option when soap and water are not readily available.
- Maintain social distancing;
- Avoid touching their face;
- Cover their coughs or sneezes;
- Stay home if they are sick; and
- Self-quarantine if they have traveled to affected areas.
For those in the food services industry, special care should be taken to thoroughly cook meat and eggs. Also, those in the airline or airport industries who may interact with individuals traveling from China or another affected region may be more vulnerable to exposure and should take stricter precautions. Health care workers should especially take care as they may confront suspected cases of COViD-19 and provide treatment for those falling ill to the virus.
In order to stress the importance of these measures and demonstrate its commitment to the overall health of the workforce, consider taking additional steps such as placing tissue boxes at each workstation and hand sanitizers at several locations around the workplace, e.g., by the printer.
Addressing Concerns About Performing Job Functions
Be prepared for employees who may be nervous and concerned about contracting COViD-19. From an employee-relations perspective, an employer should be understanding of the employee's concerns and evaluate every request or issue based on the employee's particular circumstances.
If an employee refuses to come to work when a co-worker is suspected of having contracted the coronavirus or is displaying flu-like symptoms, consider alternative arrangements such as telecommuting. With the appropriate equipment, e.g., laptops and software, allowing employees to telecommute can go a long way to ease worries among the workforce and further protect the workplace from transmission. Also, have employees take their laptops home each night in case the office is closed or they cannot get to work.
If telecommuting or working at another location is not an option, clearly, but kindly, communicate:
- Why the employee cannot be accommodated;
- Why the risk of COViD-19 infection may be low;
- How the employee can protect themselves from infection; and
- What protective measures the employer will take.
There is still much that is unknown about the virus so listen to an employee's concerns and fears and be open to discussing alternative solutions.
In addressing or responding to a proposed alternative working solution:
- Review the telecommuting policy;
- Determine how to manage a telecommuter; and
- Consider additional issues relating to flexible working arrangements.
Business Travel to a Coronavirus-Affected Region
An employer may find that an employee has reservations or simply refuses to go on a business trip to a coronavirus-affected region. In this case, an employer should consider proposing an alternative, e.g., conduct the business from the "home office' or travel to a different region to reach the same desired result.
Also, check the CDC's advisories on travel restrictions as well as whether airlines are flying in and out of the region. Regardless, an employer should consider postponing all travel in and out of affected regions, e.g., mainland China, out of an abundance of caution.
The situation remains fluid so be sure to consult the latest news and resources on the appropriate government sites.
I’m a calendar junky. There, I said it. I believed that in order to feel accomplished, and important, I needed to fill my calendar, every day, every moment. I filled it with meetings, calls, appointments, lunch dates, product reviews, sales pitches, networking meetings, board meetings.
I was busy, but I was not productive. All the things I was involved in served only to take up valuable time, and then I would find myself working late into the evening, and yes, on the weekends, doing actual work I was being paid to do. I had a hard time saying no.
As an HR Department of One, our job is never just “HR.” We wear many hats, payroll, event planning, accounting, executive assistant, travel planner, safety, facilities, heck sometimes we even do maintenance! Not to mention the countless interruptions we get throughout the day. You know the knock on the door followed by “Got a minute?” turns into 30 minutes, and another task to add to your calendar.
So, how do we transition from being busy, to being productive?
- Eat That Frog! - You may know Brian Tracy’s famous “eat-a-frog”-technique from his classic time-management book, Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. Right when you start your day, choose the most unwanted task, and just get it done.
- Learn to say “no.” – Busy people say yes to everything; productive people say yes carefully. Be honest with yourself about deadlines, the time commitment required, and how your skill set fits in to determine what you should devote your time to. You’ll learn to say yes strategically rather than saying yes to everything.
- Think Smaller – Set smaller, measurable goals. Align your to-do list with your calendar. By blocking out time on your calendar to tackle to-dos, you won’t be derailed by meetings and lingering action items.
- Focus on one project at a time. Multitasking is interrupted productivity. Instead of doing multiple tasks at once, you are switch-tasking and this start-and-stop process prevents you from hitting a state of flow and engaging in deep work.
- Close the Door – This is a hard one. Learning to close the door is like learning to say no. By closing the door, you let everyone know that you are not to be disturbed unless it is an emergency, sometimes adding a sign to the door helps. By shutting out all distractions, you can focus and efficiently use your time without being interrupted.
At the end of each day, ask yourself, “did my work today bring me closer to my goals, or did I just have a busy day? Honest introspection should become a daily practice as you find out which productivity methods work best for you. Take a few moments at the end of each day to meditate on what went well and what didn't. takes notes and adjust!
When making personnel decisions - including hiring, retention, promotion, and reassignment - employers sometimes want to consider the backgrounds of applicants and employees.
For example, some employers might try to find out about the person's work history, education, criminal record, financial history, medical history, or use of social media. Except for certain restrictions related to medical and genetic information, it's not illegal for an employer to ask questions about an applicant's or employee's background, or to require a background check.
If you get background information (for example, a credit or criminal background report) from a company in the business of compiling background information, there are additional procedures the FCRA requires beforehand:
Tell the applicant or employee you might use the information for decisions about his or her employment. This notice must be in writing and in a stand-alone format. The notice can't be in an employment application. You can include some minor additional information in the notice (like a brief description of the nature of consumer reports), but only if it doesn't confuse or detract from the notice.
Get the applicant's or employee's written permission to do the background check. This can be part of the document you use to notify the person that you will get the report. If you want the authorization to allow you to get background reports throughout the person's employment, make sure you say so clearly and conspicuously.
Use background check services that are FCRA compliant.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is fairly clear on what you can and cannot do as part of a background check with regards to credit information. Nearly all background checks are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), but you should know that there are an array of other laws that affect them, depending on state and region.
Get legal advice on how local and state laws govern your use of background checks.
Several states laws limit employers use of arrest and conviction records to make employment decisions. These laws may prohibit employers from asking about arrest records or require employers to wait until late in the hiring process to ask about conviction records. Get legal advice on basic criminal history laws for each state.
Give candidates a chance to clear up mistakes or misunderstandings with background checks.
Information obtained through background checks can sometimes be slightly incorrect and even outright wrong. Giving candidates a chance to rectify or explain incorrect information can help you save a great candidate that could have been excluded.
Use background checks consistently not on a candidate-by-candidate basis.
Apply the same background check process to every candidate you interview for the role. Applying it selectively to only candidates form a specific background or experience level can cause unintended legal consequences if it is shown to be a proxy for illegal discrimination. Outside of this, waving some candidates through based on gut feeling defeats the purpose of doing a background check to protect your company.
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Terminating an employee for poor performance…seems easy right?
On the surface, terminating an employee for poor performance seems simple. It’s nothing personal. The employee just isn’t getting it done and would be better off in another job. But even when a termination is 100% justifiable, managers must be extremely careful how they conduct themselves. Terminations, no matter how clear cut, can have legal ramifications.
Most businesses are protected to a certain extent by at-will laws, which allow the firing of employees for no reason. However, at-will employment does not keep an employee from filing a lawsuit for wrongful termination and, even if the courts rule in your favor, your business will be required to pay court costs. It’s best to take a few measures to protect yourself before firing an employee to avoid a costly legal process.
Here are 5 Tips to Termination:
- Document, document, document! Detailed, consistent documentation can defeat many claims of defamation, discrimination and wrongful discharge. Great documentation shows a pattern of clear expectations on your part, and repeated failures on the employee’s part.
- Make your Employee Handbook work for you and not against you. Make sure your employee handbook and policies are clear and concise. If you just downloaded one from the Internet, chances are it needs updating. Review the handbook annually and get a new acknowledgement from employees every year. Don’t have a handbook? Even small employers should consider having an employee handbook, it ensures your employees know their expectations, and understand workplace policies and procedures.
- Make sure your termination process is fair and standardized. It should be delivered consistently no matter who the employee, in fair, non-emotional way. Don’t embellish the reasons for termination, you don’t want a defamation case on your hands!
- Conduct a proper termination meeting. Unless the employee is volatile, do not terminate them via email, phone, or text. If possible conduct a proper termination meeting. Have witnesses, be brief and concise, and document!
- Involve HR! If an employee is in a protected class, has a known medical condition or disability, has taken job protected medical leave, or if there is suspicion of any other legal issue (e.g. harassment, retaliation), be sure to consult with HR or an employment attorney before terminating.