The recent outbreak of the coronavirus has created challenges for employers. There have been more than 24,000 cases of the virus in China and the death toll there has risen over 600. There’s also been several confirmed cases of the virus within the United States, as well as Canada, Australia, Singapore, Japan and several European nations.
For multinational organizations, especially those that employ a workforce that travels frequently, the coronavirus is of particular concern. There are several steps these employers should take to prepare for the adversity that could accompany this situation.
An employer’s first priority is to protect the health and safety of its workforce. According to Baker McKenzie, employers should take the following steps to reduce employee exposure to the virus and to minimize the likelihood of its spread:
Find the Workforce
- Work with human resources/people functions to identify exact locations of current employee populations, including employees travelling.
Appoint a Coordinator
- The coordinator, or a group of cross-functional coordinators, should be responsible for tracking the latest developments, reviewing guidance from any governmental agencies and acting as a point of contact for concerned employees.
Understand Employer Obligations in Each Affected Jurisdiction
- Review applicable government health alerts and requirements for reporting.
- Review local laws on employee privacy, association, potential for discrimination and leave/benefit/wage and hour entitlements. Remember that the balance between privacy and public health is achieved differently in different countries, but as viruses spread, those restrictions are often relaxed. For instance, primarily due to data privacy laws, employers in most of the European Union generally may not notify health authorities that an employee has been infected.
- Coordinate internally to develop employee communications and plans. Frequent communications with employees and their families is critical. Keeping in contact with official or governmental bodies such as the U.S. State Department or the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) will be essential to ensure the latest updates are available and to ensure employees are aware of any national contingency plans.
Get Managers on Board
- An organization’s managers are the first-line communication and response team. Give them the information and organizing principles they need to effectively lead in this type of situation.
Address Business Travel Concerns
- Organizations whose business involves travel by its workforce into areas where the virus is particularly active should immediately try to establish customer or business contacts through other means, e.g. teleconference, webinar or video conference.
- Businesses with employees who are working or traveling overseas should track travel and health restrictions to allow the company to move quickly in response to concerns these employees may have. Note that in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China.
It’s critical for employers to have solid business continuity planning during these situations.
Refer to WorldatWork’s white paper, “Business Continuity Planning for Illness Outbreak or Epidemic” for additional tips on how to act.
A workforce that is infected with an illness, outbreak or pandemic has a trickle-down effect: It could limit the availability, supply or delivery of essential goods and services, interrupt critical business supply chains and potentially threatens the ability to sustain critical infrastructures. Also, consumer demand for items related to infection control likely will increase dramatically, while interest in other goods may decline. The business continuity planning needs to address absenteeism, interruptions to product or service delivery to customers and potential business closures.
Employers should identify the key positions and functions essential to sustain business continuity and develop plans to enable these functions and personnel to continue working, possibly through remote operations. They should also identify and, if necessary, cross-train back-up personnel to ensure critical functions are not compromised.
An employer’s first priority is to protect the health and safety of its workforce.
There are also employment law implications to consider in the instance of a shutdown. Understand that wage and hour obligations are triggered, even in a pandemic. Employer obligations to provide pay during a shut-down will vary by jurisdiction. Before implementing any changes to the terms and conditions of employment, employers should be aware of the laws and regulations of the applicable jurisdiction, including any duty to consult with unions, work councils or other employee representative bodies, and government agencies.
What Total Rewards and HR Professionals Can Do
Total rewards and HR professionals can play a vital role in keeping the business operations going. While policies for telework, sick leave, wellness participation and hiring a cleaning crew may have been agreed upon when the organization was founded and perhaps reviewed annually, a crisis such as the coronavirus requires smart and flexible planning.
Education may be an employers’ most powerful tool in managing the risks associated with contagious viruses and diseases. Whether it be about the disease itself or changes in workplace protocols, it is important for employers to communicate early and often. Ensure that employees have a basic understanding of what they should look for in a possible outbreak as well as common-sense tips to stay healthy:
- Get any vaccine available for a disease that poses a threat.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash afterward.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners also are effective.
- Try to avoid contact with sick people.
- Sick people should see their doctor and stay home from work.
- Avoid public transportation or avoid rush-hour crowding on public transportation.
- Try to do regular shopping at off-peak hours to reduce contact with other people.
Employ Risk Management Strategies
Employers have relatively easy risk management strategies at their disposal. Worksite-specific strategies employers may recommend include:
- Implement personal social distancing strategies (e.g., where practical, maintain three feet of spatial separation between workers).
- Avoid crowded places and heavily populated gatherings.
- Avoid face-to-face meetings; use conference calls, video conferencing and the internet to conduct business.
- Avoid workplace cafeterias and introduce staggered lunch times.
- Avoid congregating in break rooms.
- If a face-to-face meeting is more practical, minimize the meeting time, choose a large room and sit at least three feet away from each other.
Employers also can monitor individual employee risk for complications. Individuals at high risk for severe and fatal infection cannot be predicted with certainty, but likely include:
- Pregnant women;
- People with compromised immune systems;
- People with underlying chronic conditions; and
- People over age 65.
Once these employee populations are identified (as possible), employers can provide additional protections.
Conduct a Benefits Review
Consider conducting a review of information about insurance, leave policies, working from home, issues related to possible income loss, and when not to come to work.
Also, look at the existing sick-leave policy and determine whether changes (temporary or permanent) need to be made. The policy should not penalize sick employees, thus encouraging employees who have symptoms that could be contagious to stay home so they do not infect other employees. Recognize that employees with ill family members may need to stay home to care for them. Other ideas include:
- Increasing the threshold of absent days, or allowing employees to pool sick, vacation and personal days.
- Covering employees who have exhausted their PTO under short-term disability or salary continuation benefits.
- Instituting a “shared sick leave” program to allow some workers to share their paid time off with co-workers.
- Requiring a medical check-up/doctor’s note for those employees who have been infected and are returning to work.
- Encouraging employees to get the appropriate vaccinations and determining whether the company will subsidize the costs.
- Providing options for emergency child-care assistance.
- Having employees update personal and emergency contact information in the company’s HRIS system.
- Assuring employees of their continued job security.
Legal Ramifications to Consider
There are a several employment and other laws that may be directly involved with the coronavirus and must be considered by employers, according to Seyfarth.
These laws include:
- The Occupational Safety and Health Act;
- Worker’s Compensation — Disability Benefits;
- Family and Medical Leave Act; and
- Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ultimately, employers should review all legal obligations and know in advance what it can and cannot do with respect to employees, suppliers and customers in the event of a cutback or shutdown of operations,
Employers should also review all vendor and client contracts to determine whether the contracts impose any reporting obligations on the company with respect to communicable diseases/viruses. Some third parties do in fact require companies to report if certain infectious diseases have entered their workforce.
Lastly, employers should review insurance coverage and confirm that policies provide the right types and levels of coverage for crisis situations and are responsive to any changes in the business. Coverage and service levels can vary dramatically, and employers need to ensure the losses they are seeking to guard against (e.g., pandemics) are covered.
Likewise, employers should determine whether policies cover the individuals they want covered, including independent contractors or local nationals.
About the Author
Brett Christie is a staff writer at WorldatWork.