Key employer considerations for returning to work post COVID-19

The uncertainties that the new coronavirus and resulting COVID-19 pandemic created regarding public health and the economy haven’t gone anywhere. Even as some U.S. states have begun lifting stay-at-home orders and allowing certain businesses to reopen physical locations, it’s clear that the world is irrevocably changed. In coming weeks, more of these orders will be rescinded. Many businesses that were shuttered or partially functioning will  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 that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. All will need to be mindful of new compliance requirements, and adopting certain practices sooner rather than later can make this process a little bit easier for all involved. 

Personnel and workspace considerations

Company leaders may want to bring as many people back as soon as they possibly can, to begin the hard work of bringing the business back to profitability. But with COVID-19 still a threat (and no vaccine on the immediate horizon, even with scientists working much faster than usual on it), it’s not as if employees can just show up at the office as they would’ve a few months ago. Specific rules must be in place to reduce the risk to working environments and assuage any 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 recent webinar, Ben Eubanks, principal analyst with Lighthouse Research & Advisory, noted that some businesses are doing “staged returns,” bringing the workforce back gradually in multiple sections perhaps weeks or months apart. This option is entirely reasonable, but communicate with the entire staff to help determine which employees to bring back: Some may be sick of remote working (or happy to be rehired), while others will remain cautious. Although you may have to make exceptions for particularly essential employees, staff members’ comfort levels can be a primary deciding factor.

Before any staff return to your workforce in significant numbers, have the entire space professionally cleaned and disinfected. You’ll also want to purchase personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, soap and disinfecting wipes for employees’ safety (and sense of security).

You’re well within your rights as an employer to enforce use of these products and require that all staff wear a face covering fully occluding the nose and mouth while in the building. Numerous states and cities are enforcing the latter, so if any staff balk at it, point to the law and send them home if they keep resisting. You can also demand that employees take temperature checks before entering the office and refuse to 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 above-board. The same is true of enforcing that workers 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, but you’ll earn this back as tax credits regardless.

Along those lines, in this post-COVID era, employers must contend both with brand-new regulations like the FFCRA, Paycheck Protection Plan and CARES Act – specifically passed to mitigate pandemic-related economic losses – and new facets of more established laws. As an example of the latter, all of the data collected with those 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 what your past requirements might’ve been when employees requested sick or family leave, these don’t require doctor’s notes or the same comprehensive documentation they once did if workers are specifically citing the FFCRA in their request. 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 it may be best to give the benefit of the doubt. Extended FMLA and emergency paid sick leave under the FFCRA are both finite, and while some wariness on employers’ parts is understandable, employees are aware they must return to work eventually. Many likely want to do so, as long as they know you’re keeping the workplace sanitized. Additionally, being more rigid than regulations require, especially over matters like leave for child care, can be disastrous – a good employee might simply quit if you try and force them to return when they’re the only person who can watch their child each day. Try compromises, 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, consider yourself somewhat lucky – not every business could limit itself to suspending some payroll while retaining benefits. But you should consider bringing back everyone you can (within the realm of financial plausibility). 

Putting furloughed employees back on salary is a cinch 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 dicier. A few may refuse, sticking with unemployment; at that point it’s your choice whether to report this to local unemployment officials and potentially affect the employee’s eligibility.

Practicing compassion

While trying to get a business back on track, it can be easy to 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 might sound unreasonable in a vacuum should be entirely understandable in the post-coronavirus context. Chances are you can come to a reasonable compromise about almost anything: As the simplest example, if someone is scared about contracting COVID-19 and doesn’t want to work on-site but can easily telework, why bother requiring them to come in? 

We are all in this together, and exercising compassion now in a work- or benefits-related situation helps cement bonds between you and your staff, ultimately benefiting your bottom line. For more information about specific FFCRA, CARES and other regulatory concerns, check out the Return to Work checklist below.

Return to Work Checklist