Kenneth Orr, Founder/President at BRG Advisory Group | National HR Outsourcing Brokerage

The COVID-19 outbreak is causing significant operational challenges for many businesses across the world and, as more employees are being encouraged to return to work, providing a safe working environment should be the top priority for any business owner.

To decrease the spread of the virus many businesses have moved away from traditional workplace environments and transitioned into remote working in order to promote social distancing. For these businesses, returning to work will be a gradual process dictated by a falling infection rate and a safer environment.

However, for industries such as the manufacturing sector, where 53% of businesses expect to be negatively affected by the pandemic, the effect has been felt much worse. A combination of falling demand for products and sites being forced to close due to being unable to comply with social distancing has meant that the industry has effectively ground to a halt, putting the jobs of 13 million Americans at risk.

In order to protect the American economy and limit the increase in unemployment, it is vitally important that these industries can return to work as soon as it is safe to do so. However, a recent survey of American citizens found that at least half of employees who have been unable to work before now are nervous about returning to work due to health concerns.

How you should be making the work environment safe 

Fundamentally it is up to the employer to create a safe environment for their employees to work in. This includes minimizing the risk of infection from diseases such as COVID-19. Before opening up, businesses should ensure that they comply with the White House Guidelines for Opening Up America Again and that they are functioning within the constraints outlined by local and state health officials.

As a minimum, businesses should have an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan in place. This will need to be specific to your workplace and identify any area or task which poses a risk to exposure. It should also outline how these risks can be reduced or eliminated. There has been plenty of guidance published by the Government and local authorities which can help businesses create these plans.

The CDC has also outlined the procedures they recommend businesses should be following when reopening:

  1. Conducting daily health checks
  2. Conducting a hazard assessment of the workplace
  3. Encouraging employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace, if appropriate
  4. Implementing policies and practices for social distancing in the workplace
  5. Improve the building ventilation system

Employees should be advised to cover their mouths with a tissue when they cough or sneeze and throw the tissue away safely. They should also make sure to wash their hands afterward and often throughout the day with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Protocols can also be put into place regarding regular cleaning of employee workspaces and communal areas e.g. office doors, keyboards, and telephones. Social distancing needs to be implemented and sharing of equipment prohibited where possible.

When cleaning office areas and equipment follow the Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting found on the CDC website. This outlines how to plan, implement, and maintain a cleaning routine to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. It also features more in-depth information regarding what cleaning products can be used and how often deep cleans should be carried out, especially in regards to a confirmed COVID positive case in the workplace.

In addition to providing a safe place for employees to carry out their tasks in the workplace, it is important that businesses continue to promote teleworking where possible as this will help minimize risk. This is especially important in regard to employees who fall into the “at-risk” category. Employers should ensure that these employees are protected with adequate procedures. If they cannot work from home, shift patterns, or working practices should be changed to minimize their contact with other employees.

What happens if employees get sick?

It is important businesses keep employees informed about the procedures they have put into place for their safety and encourage them to stay up to date with the Government issued advice. If an employee gets sick they must stay at home and notify their supervisor. They should then remain at home until they have met the criteria to discontinue home isolation and consulted a healthcare professional. If a member of their household falls sick, they should again inform their supervisor and follow the CDC recommended precautions.

In order to allow employees to have the time off they may need for sickness, to care for sick family members, or to provide childcare while schools and facilities are closed, it is recommended that most businesses implement a flexible sick leave policy. Some employers who do not currently offer a sick leave policy are also being advised to draft emergency procedures to help employees cope in an unprecedented time. It is vital that all sick leave and supportive policies are consistent with public health guidance and that each employee fully understands the procedure.

Another important thing to consider is that many employees will be advised not to access medical facilities if they are coping well at home. This may mean that they do not get a recorded COVID positive test. This should not affect their eligibility for sick leave. Upon returning to work it is also worth noting that it will be difficult for employees to be able to provide a doctors’ note stating that they are fit to return to work so adjust policies accordingly.

By offering flexible sick-leave policies, employees may feel more comfortable with taking the necessary time off to recover from the illness. If an employee is unable to take sick leave, they may come into work while still infected, spreading the illness throughout the workforce and posing a significant risk to others.

Health insurance and workers’ compensation 

In addition to providing adequate sick leave for employees, another benefit employers should be looking into is health insurance. Employers will want to save money and cut jobs in order to decrease the financial burden COVID-19 is causing. However, with the infection rate of coronavirus still rising in the US, employers should work to keep or even start providing this benefit as many employees could find themselves relying on their insurance if they fall sick.

Around 60% of Americans have healthcare insurance through an employer-sponsored program. When looking at a typical policy, the employer pays 85% of the insurance premium for their employees and 75% for their employees’ dependents, with the employee covering the remainder of the premium. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s research carried out in 2019 this costs employers on average $5,711 for single coverage and $14,069 for family coverage.

In addition to the already high cost of providing an insurance benefit, it is currently estimated that treating US patients with COVID-19 could cost up to $216bn and drive up health insurance premiums. In fact, The Telegraph expects that premiums will increase by more than 40% by 2021. Many people are calling for federal intervention to ensure this doesn’t happen but with insurers setting the new rate by the end of July, this is becoming less likely.

With increasing financial pressures already being put on employers, some could also find themselves faced with workers’ compensation claims due to coronavirus infections. These claims bring with them their own administrative challenges and increased costs.

Although the current guidelines published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inhibits the recording of the common cold and influenza, COVID-19 is currently qualified as recordable in cases where an employee is infected as a result of carrying out work-related activities. This means that any incidents are subject to the same rules as other workplace injuries and illnesses. Failure to record an infection can result in penalties, however, the determination of whether an infection is work-related is the employer’s responsibility.