It’s February 2021, but COVID remains a challenge, especially for employers. Here, VonLehman's Deirdre Bird, along with Amy Hebbeler and Sean Callan from Manley Burke, LPA, have compiled a handful of tips for employers in the new COVID-19 world.
1. Disclose Enough but Not Too Much
An employer should disclose to other employees, in a general manner, that a co-worker (or a visitor to the office) has tested positive for COVID-19. It should not disclose the identity of an infected person or the employee’s symptoms. An employer should also require employee notification to the employer if (a) the employee tests positive for COVID-19 or (b) the employee is identified as a “Close Contact” of an infected person. For managers, the safest course is to gather and share only that information absolutely necessary to protect the health of employees while not identifying any infected individual specifically.
2. Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should
According to recent EEOC guidance, an employer may require employees to be vaccinated before physically returning to work unless an employee claims (a) a disability that prevents her from safely taking the vaccine or (b) a religious objection to a vaccine. Each employer should also check to ensure that there is no state or local law that bear on its policy decisions. The important take-away here is that an employer cannot simply terminate employees that refuse a vaccination. Until employers have a plan in place to address possible fallout from such a policy, employers should probably not adopt a mandatory vaccination policy.
3. Stay Informed and Be Flexible
It is important that employers stay informed of federal, state, and local guidance and regulations. COVID liability shield statutes provide some relief against potential civil lawsuits against businesses, but such statutes are not a complete bar to employer liability. Likewise, it is not clear that COVID-19 infection would qualify as a covered claim under Worker’s Compensation programs. Accordingly, employers need to stay informed on best practices and take reasonable steps to protect their employees.
4. Promote Wellness and Self-care
The COVID pandemic forced employers to redefine a safe and healthy workplace. Many employers have adopted a more holistic view, to one of wellness, including financial, emotional, social, familial, and physical wellness. Promote wellness and self-care by evaluating how COVID-19 has impacted your organization’s demonstrated care for employees and their at-work and outside-of-work realities; reviewing organization practices, policies and benefits; and communicating regularly with employees on safety, health and wellness.
5. Solicit Employee Input
2021 will be a year of transition. It is important that employers keep a finger on the pulse of employee needs and seek employee input as safety, health and wellness requirements evolve. Communicate with employees often, leveraging a variety of organization communication channels, including communication with their direct manager. Ask questions, actively listen, and allow employees to raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprimand.
The best tip that we can give is employers should contact an attorney or human resource professional early to create and implement appropriate policies and practices and continuously review policies as new guidance comes out. Contact VonLehman’s Human Resources Consulting Group for guidance related to this topic. Deirdre Bird – firstname.lastname@example.org or 800.887.0437.