Key employer considerations for returning to work post COVID-19

The uncertainties that the COVID-19 pandemic created regarding public health and the economy continue to linger and may for several months or longer. As U.S. states begin lifting stay-at-home orders and allowing certain businesses to reopen physical locations, it’s clear that the world is irrevocably changed. Many businesses that were shuttered or partially functioning will, out of economic necessity, likely try to resume some semblance of normal operations.

Returning to work post COVID-19 will involve its fair share of complications for HR leaders and their teams, but it can be done. Every business must be mindful of new compliance requirements, and adopting certain practices sooner rather than later may make this process a little easier for all involved.

Personnel and workspace considerations

While companies are understandably anxious to bring as many people back into the fold as soon as possible, there are health and safety issues to consider. With COVID-19 still posing a risk (and no vaccine on the immediate horizon, even with scientists working much faster than usual on it), employees can not simply show up at the office. Specific rules must be in place to reduce the risk to working environments and calm employee fears.

Exterior view of building with multiple offices, windows openOffices won’t go back to “normal” in the wake of COVID-19 for quite some time.

In a webinar sponsored by PeopleStrategy,, Ben Eubanks, principal analyst with Lighthouse Research & Advisory and experienced HR practitioner, noted that some businesses are doing “staged returns,” bringing the workforce back gradually perhaps weeks or months apart. If following this path, it is important to communicate with your team when determining which employees to bring back, and when. Some may be eager to return to an office environment, while others may be cautious. Although you may have to make exceptions for particularly essential employees, comfort levels should also play a role in the decision.

In addition to ensuring the office space is professionally cleaned and disinfected, employers should have personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, soap and disinfecting wipes readily available to demonstrate your concern and commitment to keeping employees as healthy and safe as possible. Employers are well within their rights to enforce use of these products and require that all staff wear a mask fully covering the nose and mouth while in the building. In fact, many states and cities are enforcing the latter, so if anyone refuses, share the law with them and send them home if they continue to resist. You can also check temperatures before your employees enter the office and not admit anyone with a temperature above 99.5-100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Along similar lines, arrange workstations to be at least six feet apart from one another, per social distancing guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sticking to regulations

Practices like temperature checks and social-distancing requirements are easily enforceable and entirely reasonable given our current situation. The same is true of making sure that employees who return and then become sick immediately go home and adhere to the CDC-recommended quarantine period of 14 days. If they can’t work remotely, they must still be paid under the emergency medical leave provisions created by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), but you’ll earn this back as tax credits.

In the post-COVID era, employers must contend with brand-new regulations like the FFCRA, Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) and CARES Act along with new facets of more established laws. For example, data collected with temperature checks still falls under HIPAA, and must be safeguarded accordingly.

Close-up of thermometer with flame effects around the 40 Celsius and 100 Fahrenheit thresholdTemperature checks are a perfectly reasonable (and legal) requirement for workers entering the building post COVID-19.

On the other hand, regardless of your past requirements when employees requested sick or family leave, if workers are specifically citing the FFCRA in their request, they don’t have to provide a doctor’s notes or other comprehensive documentation. If you’re concerned about employee misuse of leave, you can ask that they undergo a telehealth examination and have the practitioner email you to certify that it occurred. But, right now, in light of what our country has been through, it may be best to err on the side of caution and demonstrate empathy and leniency.

Extended FMLA and emergency paid sick leave under the FFCRA are both finite and employees know they must return to work eventually. Additionally, being more rigid than regulations require can be disastrous, especially over matters like leave for child care. A high performing employee may end up quitting if you try and force them to return when they’re the only person who can watch their child each day. In situations like these, try to find arrangements that work for both parties, like extended telework or intermittent leave.

Before your return-to-work plan begins, call an all-hands virtual meeting explaining emergency benefits your team members have under CARES and FFCRA, and post the required Labor Department notice summarizing them once back in office. This will minimize confusion and conflict over who has which rights and benefits.

Handling furloughed vs. laid off employees

If you were able to furlough employees rather than lay them off, your company should consider bringing back everyone you can.¬†Putting furloughed employees back on salary is relatively simple as long as your budget allows it. (If you’re receiving a PPP loan, it should come from those funds.) Asking laid-off workers back could be more complicated as some may choose to stick with unemployment. For those, you have the option to contact local unemployment officials, but recognize that could affect the employee’s eligibility.

Practicing compassion

As our nation tries to reopen and recover, it is critical that we not lose sight of the human factor. People on your team have spent the last several months scared, tense and largely indoors. Some of their actions and requests that may have seemed unreasonable six months ago are entirely understandable in the post-coronavirus context. In most circumstances, we can find a reasonable compromise. For example, if someone is scared about contracting COVID-19 by coming to an office and can easily telework, why force the issue?

We are all in this together, and exercising compassion now in a work- or benefits-related situation helps cement bonds between you and your team, ultimately benefiting your bottom line.