As more states loosen the COVID-19 Shelter in Place laws and people begin to return to previously sheltered business, it is essential that businesses have a plan for how that return to work will look and, equally important, convey relevant portions of the plan to its employees.
The Return-to-Work Plan should be broad enough to encompass all business needs but also specific enough to provide management and employees alike guidance for reopening and still be flexible enough to accommodate changes in this unprecedented pandemic.
A Return-to-Work plan should look vastly different depending on the business. What may work in an office, may not work for industrial jobs, health services or retail. It is important to tailor the Return-to-Work plan for your unique work environment.
Employers should consider the following when drafting their Return-to-Work plan:
- Is your work place prepared for a return to work. OSHA has prepared a publication “Guidance for Preparing the Workplace for COVID-19”, that addresses what employers should do to prepare for the return to work. These guidelines can be found at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3990.pdf The CDC has also published guidelines for preparing to reopen. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/reopen-guidance.html
- What type of written authorization will your employees need to sign prior to returning to work. As a condition of returning, employers should require all employees to sign an authorization for the company to disclose if an employee has symptoms consistent with and/or a positive test for COVID-19 to co-workers, vendors, visitors, and other occupants of the premises as necessary and then require the employee to provide a list of people with whom they have had contact over the previous 14 days. Employers owe a duty to provide a safe work environment and this may include a duty to notify coworkers that an employee has symptoms of or tested positive for COVID-19. This duty has to be balanced with the employee’s right to privacy, so a well-drafted authorization for disclosure should make clear that the employee is waiving any rights to confidentiality in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and allow others they were in contact with to make informed decisions.
- Who is coming back to work. Employers should consider the number of employees that can safely work, the times the employees will work and whether it can safely function with a limited onsite staff of employees. Employers may want to stagger who is returning to work. Some companies may want to divide the number of workers into an A/B schedule. Or, some companies may find it more important to have a certain groups of employees return now, and another group return later.
- What job functions will be expected of employees returning to work. Employees may be expected to perform different job functions or normal job functions in a different manner upon returning to work. These new functions should be clearly expressed.
- How does the Return-to-Work plan affect those who remain “working from home.” The employer should communicate any changes in job responsibilities and expectations to those who are not in the initial phase of returning to their prior location of work, will work part-time from home or who will continue to work from home.
- What safety measures will the employer require of the employee prior to employees returning to work. Employees should be instructed regarding the employer’s expectations prior to the employees returning to work. Such expectations should include self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 before they return to work and instructions not to return to work if there is a possibility that they have COVID-19 until they have consulted with medical personnel. While the CDC has stressed that their knowledge of COVID-19 is still evolving, the CDC is still the best source for guidance on self-monitoring. The current list of known symptoms include:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
- What safety measures will be required when employees are back to work. Undoubtedly, the work place will look vastly different to your employees than the work place was they left a few months ago. Employees should be notified regarding any rule changes. There should be clear rules regarding social distancing and the use of masks, hand sanitizers and hand washing. There may also be new rules regarding where the employees can work, which areas of the facility they can access and limits on even which doors, hallways, computers, phones and bathrooms they may use to limit any potential spread as well as maintain social distancing. There may also be new limitations on who can access the premises and what safety measures are required of visitors, vendors and customers.
- What to do if an employee is exhibiting symptoms at work. The CDC has stated that prompt identification and isolation of potentially infectious individuals is a critical step in protecting workers, customers, visitors, and others at the office. The company should have a plan in place for how to safely escort the employee from the work area and how to properly disinfect the area where the employee primarily worked. In addition, the employer should be prepared to notify those who may have come into contact with the employee.
- Are there rules for meeting vendors, clients and customers outside the workplace. Many employees meet with vendors, clients and customers outside the workplace. It is important to have clear expectations when employees are performing job functions in the general public. Employers can require that the employees continue to use masks, hand sanitizers and hand washing practices as practical as possible when meeting others for their job related duties.
There is no ‘one plan fits all.’ It is important that employers have a plan that best suits their industries and protects their most-vital resource– their people.
If you have any questions or need any assistance in drafting a Return to Work plan, please contact Kristin Tauras at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kristin is a member of the COVID-19 team of attorneys to respond to questions related to the legal ramification of the COVID-19 Epidemic, including issues related to Illinois’ shelter in place and the epidemic’s impact on employment, small business, insurance, bankruptcy, banking, mass tort litigation (asbestos), medical malpractice and other legal issues arising during this evolving epidemic. Kristin devotes a significant portion of her practice to employment litigation.