Covid-19 is an infectious respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus. As it sweeps across the world and, most recently the U.S., employers are dealing with issues and scenarios unimaginable a month ago. From implementing teleworking to meeting payroll, the challenges are many, and anxiety is high. On a very basic level, prevention, policy-making and planning are key to handling infectious disease in the workplace.
Who knows in what context Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but he was right when it comes to preventing germs in the workplace. According to WebMD, more than 10 million bacteria are on a typical office desk which is 400 times more bacteria than found on the average toilet seat. In an often-referenced study, to see how quickly a virus can spread, researchers asked volunteers to be artificially inoculated with a benign virus. Those infected with the benign virus spread it to 50% of workplace surfaces within four hours of arriving to work. Because uninfected co-workers share those workspaces, half of them tested positive for the virus within a short period of time.
If all employees routinely take three simple steps, the spread of germs would be substantially slowed.
- Regularly wipe down with antibacterial wipes all work surfaces, including keyboards, iPads, copier buttons, desktops, door and file handles. Include shared spaces such as kitchens and elevators and wipe down coffeepots, microwaves, dishwasher and elevator buttons. Alternate the responsibility for cleaning shared spaces among staff members.
- Wash your hands regularly and definitely after using the restroom and before eating. Research published in Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health found that handwashing kills bacteria, reducing the risk of infection with two common viruses up to 77%.
- Use a hand sanitizer at regular intervals throughout the day.
Communicate these three simple steps to your employees from day one of their employment, and make it part of your office’s regular routine. Provide employees their own supply of anti-bacterial wipes and hand sanitizer. Your return on investment through fewer sick days is well worth your investment in these supplies.
Employees must know your company’s policy on infectious disease in the workplace. A comprehensive infectious disease control policy should include the following:
- A statement the company endeavors to protect its workforce and prevent the spread of an infectious disease outbreak in the workplace while maintaining effective business operations.
- Steps employees should take to prevent the outbreak of infectious disease.
- Steps employees should take in the event of an infectious disease outbreak such as limiting travel, staying home if not feeling well and telecommuting.
- Information on how the company will handle requests for medical information from ill employees.
- How the company will maintain employee confidentiality.
- Social distancing guidelines.
- Where to go for more information or to request assistance.
In the event of an infectious disease outbreak, employers must act swiftly to minimize the effect to the workforce and company operations. Employers who have not given thought to how to handle an outbreak when one occurs, waste precious time reacting to the situation instead of containing it. Some issues to consider when planning for a potential infectious disease outbreak are:
- Do you offer or have the capability to offer flexible work arrangements?
- What equipment/software is needed to implement a flexible work arrangement?
- Do you have a telecommuting policy
- Does your PTO policy allow for leave donations, negative leave balances, leave without pay?
- How will you handle a terminating employee with a negative leave balance?
- Does your state or county require mandatory paid sick or other leave?
- Will your time-keeping system accommodate tracking time for remote non-exempt employees?
- Do you require medical certifications for extended leaves of absence or in order for an employee on a medical leave of absence to return to work?
- How will you handle quarantined employees, either mandated or voluntary?
- How will you handle a healthy employee who is afraid to come into work for fear of exposure to a contagious disease?
- How will benefits be affected by a medical leave of absence?
- How do you fulfill your FMLA notification requirements in the case of a medical leave of absence?
- How will you handle employee confidentiality for ill employees?
- What are your obligations, if any, under OSHA?
- How will you handle any necessary layoffs, furloughs or reductions-in-force?
- Do you have effective communication channels to handle a remote workforce?
Paid/Unpaid Time Off
It is critical to examine your current paid time off practices and policies to ensure they address the effects of an outbreak of an infectious disease in your company.
Do your PTO policies address how your company will handle a mandatory quarantine or lock-down in which employees cannot go to work? In an already alarming health crisis, employees shouldn’t also have to wonder how, when or if they will be paid.
Work with your CFO to determine how long your company could afford to meet payroll in varying scenarios and adopt paid/unpaid time off strategies accordingly. Perhaps a whole class of employees would need to be furloughed after their PTO is exhausted. Investigate your state’s workers’ compensation requirements for employees furloughed or laid off. Might you offer an early retirement package to some employees? Others may welcome a voluntary leave without pay. There are numerous ways to address paid/unpaid time off that warrant analysis before a crisis occurs. Remember to consider employment laws and to treat employees fairly and consistently.
Partner with Smart HR
No one should have to face a crisis like an outbreak of a contagious disease in the workplace alone. Partner with Smart HR if you need assistance handling the current pandemic or want to plan ahead and be prepared for the next emergency or crisis. Smart HR consultants can help you with policy development and emergency preparedness or even just be a sounding board and offer a different perspective if that is what you need. Call us today.