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a green surgical mask | coronavirus and the workplace

Regardless of whether the COVID-19 is officially labeled a global pandemic or not, it has been big enough news to rock the stock market in recent days and cause upheaval in many places of work all over the world. You can’t escape reports about the disease in the news or on social media. So what do employers in the United States need to know about coronavirus in the workplace.

Coronavirus and the Workplace, Around the Globe

The New York Times reports that prominent European businesses are putting corporate emergency plans into effect at the first hint of this coronavirus disease, designated COVID-19. Employees at some organizations are being asked to work from home when the companies have identified signs of the illness, and companies across Europe have been taking similar steps to prevent the spread of it, including stopping people who have visited certain countries from entering their offices.

For weeks before all of this, news outlets and social media reported on the human toll brought on by the coronavirus outbreak dealt a blow to global supply chains and business in and with China.

Is Your Company Prepared for a Coronavirus Outbreak?

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) currently states that there is no evidence of widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States at this time, the panic created by the possibility of the spread of such a contagious disease is very real. Here in the United States, organizations are taking steps to deal with not only what may be coming our way as COVID-19 cases begin to pop up throughout the country, but to deal with the anxiety surrounding the outbreak.

Not all employees are at risk of exposure to the virus, even if they travel for work. It is important for employers to be cautious, but not overly cautious , about whether or not travel bans or mandatory work from home situation are required.

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) has shared some important things that employers must keep in mind as if it is deemed necessary for their workers telecommute or conference electronically due to exposure or risk to the coronavirus, including:

  1. Technological adaptations may be necessary to give employees the access and tools they will need
  2. Process considerations that may need tweaking as less face-to-face meetings and other activities are limited
  3. Security and compliance considerations employers must keep in mind to create an infrastructure that supports remote work and collaboration

What About Employees Who Aren’t Identified as at Risk for Contracting Coronavirus in the Workplace?

If a risk has been identified, or you have individuals from infected regions, this public health crisis takes on a different meaning than for those businesses currently unaffected by the illness. Can you insist that those individuals with or at risk for the virus take paid time off for a specified period? Should you?

It’s complicated. According to SHRM, in the absence of any legal situation affecting the enforcement of attendance policies, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA), leave policies may be enforced. That said, businesses must be aware of any public health agency directives or local emergency laws that may come into play. And employers are also legally obligated to provide workers with safe work environments, and this includes safe from highly infectious diseases.

But, just because you possibly can enforce your normal attendance policies, should you in cases like this? Showing your employees that you care about their well-being and support them during a real or perceived public health emergency is important for morale and employee satisfaction. This includes simple steps to ensure better hygiene in the workplace. According to SHRM and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are a few things employers can do to reduce exposure to communicable diseases, in the face of a threat of coronavirus in the workplace, or the flu, or simply in general:

  1. Replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences
  2. Allowing employees to work remotely if they identify symptoms
  3. Encourage sick employees to stay home rather than come to work contagious
  4. Emphasize respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees
  5. Routinely have environmental cleaning of your workspaces
  6. Educate employees on best health practices before traveling
  7. Provide tissues, adequate and ample ways to clean hands and no-touch disposal receptacles for employees to use

Here are some more practical steps businesses can take to reduce exposure in to coronavirus from the CDC.

Isn’t It Time You Had an HR Plan for Emergencies Like This?

RAI Resources can help enhance your HR policies and procedures so that your business is better prepared for workforce issues, including fears of coronavirus in the workplace. When your employees feel supported and valued throughout their employee life cycle journey, you can see better retention, engagement and productivity, too. We are a premiere HR consulting and professional recruiting firm, and we provide tactical, practical employment assistance across a number of fields, including: manufacturing, construction, logistics, professional services and engineering. Contact us today for your complimentary, no-obligation consultation.