As the coronavirus spreads worldwide, here are 10 practical steps that employers should consider to combat the WHO-defined global pandemic. These steps are not based on the laws of any one jurisdiction but are designed to provide a global employer with themes to consider.
1. Update your business travel policy
Most employers have not banned all business travel, but it has been curtailed. Employers are encouraged to follow governments advice at all times. Pronouncements by many government including the US and Israel to restrict international travel are causing businesses to look at alternatives to business travel, given the risk of border lockdowns.
Governments are generally advising that all travel, business or otherwise, be suspended, unless absolutely critical. Even then, it may be inadvisable as employees may be trapped abroad or undergo self-isolation when returning home. Employers may continue to request that employees travel to lower-risk areas if this is part of their normal duties, but should keep up to date with travel advisories and continually reassess risks involved with such travel.
If employees refuse to travel to a lower-risk area, employers may consider if there is a legitimate concern about exposure to the virus due to underlying health conditions. Many employers with business travel insurance should check whether employees are covered for travel undertaken on the company’s behalf.
Should an employee contract the coronavirus during a business trip, it could arguably be treated as a work-related illness. Jurisdictions and industry standards vary; but employers should take steps to protect the health of their employees.
2. Consider the implications of personal travel
Employers may not dictate where employees travel in their personal time but it makes sense for employers to advise employees to keep up to date with the relevant guidance from their governments and to practice precautions while traveling. Employees who inform an employer that they anticipate traveling to a high-risk area may be cautioned that a mandatory quarantine period may be imposed upon their return, during which time the employee may be asked to work remotely or take leave.
3. Decide how to handle different types of quarantine
There are different types of quarantine scenarios:
* Government-mandated quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis
* Government or medical authority-recommended quarantine, eg, where an individual is showing symptoms but has not been diagnosed
* Employer-mandated quarantine
* Employee-led self-isolation due to symptoms, recent travel to affected areas, or special circumstances, eg, pregnancy or an underlying health condition.
In these scenarios, employers must consider whether employees are entitled to sick leave or other pay according to government legislation. If in quarantine and although fit to work, an employee may also be entitled to sick leave in many countries. Other options may include working from home and taking leave.
4. Review your approach to other absences
Other reasons for employee absence related to COVID-19 include:
* Employees stuck abroad due to a travel lockdown or quarantine
* Employees having to stay at home due to school closures
* Employees having to stay at home to look after sick relatives
Employees stuck abroad due to a lockdown or local quarantine after business travel may be entitled to receive pay until returning home, and where possible, work remotely. If the employee was on vacation, the position may depend on the employer’s policy. Either way, remote working may be possible or the employee could take leave (paid or unpaid) to cover the absence.
In many countries employees may be permitted to take leave (paid or unpaid) to care for family, as a short-term measure or while longer-term care arrangements are made. If school closures / quarantine periods continue for a longer period, then employers may look at practical ways of managing that absence. If employees can work from home, then it is customary to provide normal pay, otherwise other types of leave must be considered.
5. Make sure you have the right measures in place to support working from home
Assuming remote working is possible, employers are encouraged to review their work from home policies and make sure that employees who do not ordinarily work from home have the technical and other support. Some businesses are permitting certain groups or even entire offices to work from home on a trial basis to address issues in advance should more wide-scale home-working become mandatory.
6. Assess the implications of a short-term closure / temporary layoffs
In some countries, the situation may trigger the right (under law or collective bargaining agreement) to put employees on reduced hours, for an employer to suspend operations temporarily while the employee remains bound under the employment contract. The right to do this and the pay that is due as a result, will depend on local rules and may require a statutory process, as well as consultation with employees. If positions are made redundant during or after a temporary layoff, the normal rules that apply to redundancies / reductions in force may apply.
7. Comply with your health and safety obligations
Employers have a general duty to take reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of the workforce and to provide a safe place of work. Some of the practical steps that employers may consider include:
* Providing regular up-to-date government and health authority information to staff
* Displaying notices based on the latest health advice on how to prevent the spread of the virus and what to do / who to contact if they have symptoms
* Reminding everyone with symptoms of the virus not to come to the office and of the recommendations on self-isolation
* Discouraging physical greetings such as handshakes and kissing and otherwise encouraging social distancing
* Reviewing cleaning regimes so that high-traffic areas or surfaces such as door handles / faucets / shared equipment, etc., are cleaned regularly
* Providing tissues and ensuring there are sufficient means for disposing of tissues
* Providing hand sanitizers in entrances to the office and ensuring there are appropriate hand washing facilities (with soap) for employees and invited guests using the office
* Assessing if there is any particular risk in relation to certain members of staff who have underlying health conditions or are vulnerable for any other reason
* Providing similar advice to visitors / contractors who are working on the premises and mandate that they also comply with any policies or guidance in place.
8. Remember that discrimination risk could still arise
Employers may be alert to the risk of discrimination claims arising when handling issues relating to COVID-19. Employers should remind Human Resources and managers that policies be applied consistently and without regard to an individual’s ethnicity or national origin; that practices not disproportionately affect one group of protected employees more than another - absent a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason; and that, in a world where individuals are ever-conscious of the health concerns of those around them, that employees are not treated differently on the basis of an actual or perceived disability - again, absent a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason.
9. Think about what else you can do to support the workforce
Employers should be alert to the deep anxieties about Covid-19 and issue communications to staff to ease anxiety and provide clear guidance. Other steps may include:
* Provide regular updates from company leadership to reassure staff
* Consider what steps may be appropriate to protect the mental well-being of staff when they may be self-isolating
* Publicize information concerning who employees can speak with if they have concerns about the virus and the measures being taken
* Evaluate workplace emergency response protocols and consider what modifications are necessary to address a pandemic
* Check whether personal contact information is updated and business emergency procedures are in place
* Consider reissuing social media policy and what employees should be posting about the virus and business prevention measures to avoid spreading rumors / false information or the misimpression that employees are authorized to speak on behalf of the company
* Talk to employee representatives about plans and the potential impact on the workforce.
* Review upcoming meetings and conferences and decide which should be cancelled or turned into conference calls or "virtual" meetings.
* Think through hiring processes: may interviews be conducted remotely, and is it permissible for interviewees to be screened (for recent travel to high-risk areas or symptoms)?
* Consider visitor / contractor policies for the workplace and if these need to be updated
* Think about the impact on temporary staff by office closures.
* Consider the health and safety implications of provided transportation.
10. Keep up to date with the latest information
Last, but not least, keep up to date with the latest information from the various websites containing local government health agency guidance concerning COVID-19.
The authors are partners practicing Labor Law and specializing in employment services at Global Law firm DLA PIPER - Brian S. Kaplan (New York); Ute Krudewagen (Silicon Valley) Tim Marshall and Judith Harris (London).
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 18, 2020
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