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What Employers Need to Know About Vaccination Surcharges and Mandates

HR Question:

Our company is weighing our options between implementing COVID-19 vaccination incentives, surcharges, or a mandate. What employment laws do we need to consider in our decision-making process?

HR Answer:

As you can imagine, Delta Airlines’ announcement of a vaccination surcharge and President Biden’s hint that mandatory vaccination rules may be forthcoming are generating a lot of questions. As such employers are evaluating the pros and cons of vaccination programs. Employment considerations are beyond the scope of this blog post, but the design of the vaccination program will ultimately determine what laws apply from a benefits industry perspective. Some decision points that impact the laws that apply include:

  • Will the incentive be tied to the group health plan or premium in any way?
  • Will vaccines be provided by the employer or an organization hired by the employer?
  • Will vaccination status simply be reported by the employee?

These decision points dictate the compliance considerations and laws that will apply to the incentive program. The laws that may apply include HIPAA, ACA, ADA, and others. The following is an overview of some of the considerations under each of these laws.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

If the incentive provided by the employer is tied to the group health plan, the plan must comply with HIPAA nondiscrimination rules. The HIPAA rules define wellness programs as either participatory or health-contingent activity-based or health-contingent outcomes-based.

  • Participatory programs do not require individuals to meet a health-related standard to receive the reward and incentives under participatory programs are unlimited.
  • Health-contingent programs require individuals to meet a health-related standard to receive the reward.

While there is some debate whether vaccination status is participatory or health-related, many attorneys are advising employers to treat a vaccination reward or surcharge as a health-contingent activity wellness program because vaccination may not be recommended for certain individuals due to underlying health concerns.

The HIPAA rules require that a health-contingent activity-based program must:

  • Be reasonably designed to promote health and prevent disease;
  • Be made available to all similarly situated individuals, which includes providing a reasonable alternative or waiver to any individual for whom it is medically inadvisable or unreasonably difficult to receive the vaccine;
  • Provide an opportunity to qualify for the reward at least once per year;
  • Limit any incentives under the terms of the wellness program to no more than 30% of the cost of coverage (based on single rate if only employees may participate or family rate if dependents may participate); and
  • Disclose the availability of a reasonable alternative standard for anyone for whom it is medically inadvisable to receive the vaccine

Any vaccination incentive must be combined with any other wellness incentive given for a participant meeting a health-contingent factor when determining if the 30% limit is satisfied (unless the other incentive relates solely to non-use of tobacco). Additionally, employers may be required to provide religious accommodation under the terms of the wellness program for those individuals with closely held religious beliefs.

Affordable Care Act (ACA) Affordability

Another watch out for employers when incentives are tied to the group health plan is affordability under the ACA’s shared responsibility provisions (applicable to employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees). Employers must make an affordable offer of coverage or risk a penalty if an employee enrolls in marketplace coverage and receives assistance. Offers of coverage are considered affordable if they are less than 9.83% of household income in 2021 (decreased to 9.61% for 2022). When calculating whether or not an offer of coverage is affordable (including under any of the three safe harbors), the employer must assume that all participants fail to meet the health standard (in this case vaccination) and must pay the higher premium.

There is one exception with regard to tobacco use. Employers may assume that employees are non-tobacco users when determining affordability. In this case, employers may determine affordability based on the non-vaccinated (or non-wellness)/non-tobacco user rate.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA applies to employer wellness programs when the program makes a disability-related inquiry or medical exam. If the employer, or third-party on behalf of the employer, requests medical information as a screening before providing the vaccine, the plan must comply with the terms of the ADA and should consult employment counsel.

For employers who intend to simply verify vaccination status, EEOC guidance indicates that vaccination status alone is not considered a disability-related inquiry. Therefore, vaccination status alone will not trigger an employer needing to comply with the EEOC wellness plan rules.

Complicating Factors

Beyond the direct compliance requirements posed under vaccination programs, there are also administrative challenges:

  • What is considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA or a reasonable alternative standard under HIPAA for individuals who require an exemption from vaccination?
  • How will employers accommodate employees that have valid religious objections to receiving the vaccination?
  • What will employers accept as proof of vaccination? Vaccine cards are given to those that have received the vaccine; however, there are reports of fraudulent vaccine cards.
  • Employers that offer a one-time bonus or gift cards should remember that these incentives are taxable income.

Conclusion

Employers have many issues to consider when it comes to offering incentives/penalties to encourage vaccination. This is a new dilemma employers are facing as they consider return to work plans and the safety and health of their employees. President Biden’s announcement that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is working on guidance that may require certain employers to mandate vaccines could complicate the issue further. Time will tell and we need to wait and see whether and when OSHA issues guidance requiring mandatory vaccination. Employers should consider engaging legal counsel in the discussion and design of any vaccination program to have a clear understanding of compliance and potential risks from both an employment and benefits perspective.

The information contained in this document is informational only and is not intended as, nor should it be construed as, legal or accounting advice. Neither HORAN nor its consultants provide legal, tax nor accounting advice of any kind. We make no legal representation, nor do we take legal responsibility of any kind regarding regulatory compliance. Please consult your counsel for a definitive interpretation of current statute and regulation and their impact on you and your organization. 

Special thank you to Shelly Hodges-Konys, Director of Compliance with HORAN for contributing to this edition of our HR Question of the Week.

If you’re overwhelmed with trying to stay on top of ever-changing HR compliance rules and regulations, strategic HR is here to help! Our senior HR consultants can help you to identify and understand relevant regulations, assess the impact on your company, and advise you on the appropriate times to seek legal counsel. Learn more about our HR Compliance & Recordkeeping services, or contact us today.

Can I Ask if My Employees Are Vaccinated?

Can we ask if our employees are vaccinated? Isn’t this a HIPAA violation or an illegal inquiry under the ADA or somehow confidential information?

Employers can ask for proof of vaccination unless there is a state or local law or order to the contrary.*

When an employer is requesting or reviewing medical information in its capacity as an employer, as it would be when asking about an employee’s vaccination status, it is considered to be an employment record. In such cases, HIPAA would not apply to the employer. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will govern the collection and storage of this information.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the ADA, has stated that asking about vaccination is not a disability-related inquiry, though it could turn into one if you ask follow-up questions about why the employee is not vaccinated. Asking a yes or no question, or requesting to see the employee’s vaccination card, does not violate any federal laws or require proof that the inquiry is job-related.

Finally, just because employees think that something is or should be private or confidential doesn’t mean they can’t be required to share it with their employer. Social Security numbers, birth dates, and home addresses are all pieces of information an employee may not want to advertise, but sharing is necessary and required for work. Vaccination status is similar. However, all of this information, once gathered, should not be shared by the employer with third parties, except on a need-to-know basis.

*It appears that some governors may attempt to prevent certain entities from requiring “immunity passports” (e.g., proof of vaccination) through an executive order (EO), though as of July 31, none of the EOs already issued appear to apply to private businesses and their employees. Also note that if there is a law in place that prevents treating vaccinated and unvaccinated employees differently (like in Montana), you may be able to ask, but not take any action based on the response.

Should we keep a record of who is vaccinated or make copies of vaccination cards? If we do, how long should we keep that information?

If you’re asking about vaccination status, you’ll want to keep some kind of record (so you don’t have to ask multiple times), but how you do this is up to you, unless state or local law has imposed specific recordkeeping requirements. You may want to keep something simple like a spreadsheet with the employee’s name and a simple “yes” or “no” in the vaccination column. If you’d prefer to make a copy of their vaccination card, that should be kept with other employee medical information, separate from their personnel file. Per OSHA, these records should be kept for 30 years.

If we keep a record of who is vaccinated, can we share it with managers who will be required to enforce policies based on that information, such as masking and social distancing?

Yes. We recommend not sharing this information any more widely than necessary. While anonymized information is okay to share (e.g., “80% of our employees are vaccinated”), each employee’s vaccination status should be treated as confidential, even if the fact that they are wearing a mask to work seems to reveal their status publicly. Obviously, managers will need this information if they are expected to enforce vaccination-dependent policies, and employers should train them on how they should be enforcing the policies and how and when to escalate issues to HR or a higher level of management.

Special thanks to the HR Support Center for providing this edition of our HR Question of the Week. 

For further COVID-19-related resources, check out our COVID-19 Employer Resources page or contact us for direct assistance. 

This article does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.  Information and content presented herein is for general informational purposes only and readers are strongly encouraged to contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any legal matter.  Only your individual attorney can provide assurances that the information contained herein is applicable or appropriate to your particular situation or legal jurisdiction.

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Can I Require My Employees to Receive the COVID-19 Vaccine?

HR Question:

As vaccines continue to roll out, can I require that my employees receive the vaccine?

HR Answer:

Many employers are now beginning to face the difficult decision of whether or not to require vaccines for their employees. Some employees may refuse to come back into the office without it, others may staunchly refuse to receive the vaccine right away or at all. So how are employers expected to navigate this world of grey regulations and guidelines?

Can Employers Require Their Employees to Receive the Vaccine?

The answer? It’s complicated. In order to address some of the various guidelines, requirements, and generally muddy waters that the vaccination presents, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released some guidance for employers.

In fact, Graydon Law summarized some of the available guidelines for employers to consider when implementing such a policy. While this may allow employers to have a better understanding of some of the nuanced situations they may face when implementing a mandatory vaccine policy, no one should go it alone. To answer our first question: while it’s possible for employers to implement a mandatory employee vaccination policy, they should not do so without consulting legal counsel.

Should Employers Require Their Employees to Receive the Vaccine?

This answer is a little more difficult to pin down.

In an HR Question of the Week for strategic HR inc., Lee Geiger, Graydon Law attorney and our valued partner, raised some excellent questions for business leaders to ask themselves before establishing a mandatory vaccine. Issues such as industry patterns and potential exposure related to the company’s services are given questions with more concrete answers. Additional questions such as internal logistics, consequences for those who refuse the vaccine without ADA protection, and deciding who in the company will serve (as Geiger put it) as the “Vaccine Police” may begin to further cloud the situation.

Can an Employer Provide Incentives to Employees for Getting the Vaccine?

While this may seem like a great way to encourage all of your employees to get vaccinated, it can lead to even more issues.

  • In the EEOC’s eyes, the vaccination is seen as a wellness activity which is currently under review as it relates to incentives.  As of May 4, 2021, we still await technical assistance direction from the EEOC on whether or not vaccine incentives can be offered.  In a statement on April 22, 2021 the EEOC indicates that guidance will be issued with no date on when that will occur.
  • Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), remember if you offer cash, it could be viewed as a nondiscretionary bonus which means you may need to adjust the pay to any non-exempt employees who worked overtime during the same period that they received the cash incentive. Also, you may be required to pay the employee for their time to get the vaccination.
  • If you don’t allow employees in the workplace without the vaccine, you run the risk of actually not having enough employees to run the business.
  • Employee engagement may be impacted as some employees see this as their decision and their employer shouldn’t be telling them what to do in this regard.
  • If an employee does get the vaccine, what liability would you as an employer have if the employee had side effects? Would it be a workers compensation issue or worse – a legal issue?
  • The legal alphabet soup gets even more complicated when you consider OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act) requirements, which require employers to provide a safe workplace, or NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) in which an employer cannot impact a worker’s “concerted activity.”

Nothing about COVID has been easy and the rules seem to continue to change daily.  Perhaps one approach may be to help educate employees on the impacts of COVID, the benefits of the vaccine, and additional preventative measures to be taken.

As employers, it very hard to navigate what to do in our workforces. Mandating or incentivizing getting the vaccine is meant to protect employees and customers.  However, it can actually lead to many other complicated issues.  Employers will need to take a close look at the impacts of mandating or incentivizing and decide if the need for the vaccine in their workplace outweighs those risks.

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What Does the American Rescue Plan Act Mean for Me?

As of Thursday, March 11, 2021, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The act provides a wide range of extensions, clarifications, and further avenues for funding for many businesses. We’ve summarized the major points below. 

New 100% COBRA Premium Subsidy: Beginning April 1, 2021, and ending September 30, 2021, employers with eligible employees (employees who have been involuntarily terminated or whose hours have been reduced due to COVID-19, back to November 2020) could be eligible for the subsidy, which covers the employees’ COBRA premiums. The subsidy will later be applied to the employers’ quarterly taxes.  

  • Keep in mind, the subsidy is available until the individual’s maximum COBRA coverage period ends, or Sept. 30, 2021 (whichever is earliest).
  • Employees must be notified if they are eligible for the subsidy. This includes notification to anyone impacted back to November 2020 – even if they did not elect COBRA coverage at the time. The Department of Labor will provide model notices within 30 days from the date of the enactment.
  • What can employers do now? Look for the model notices and connect with their COBRA vendor to review the changes and alert any former employees whose COBRA coverage extends into this six-month period.

Changes to Families First Coronavirus Response Act, including Sick and Family Leave: Tax credits for emergency paid sick leave and family leave have been extended through September 30, 2021.  As with the extension of this leave from January 1, 2021, to March 31, 2021 – this appears to be a VOLUNTARY election by employers.  It is not mandated.  Changes include:  

  • Wages covered by the family leave credits have been raised from $10,000 to $12,000.
  • The Act adds additional reasons employees can qualify for paid sick leave and family leave including obtaining an immunization related to COVID-19 or recovering from any injury, disability, illness, or condition related to such immunization.
  • The previous 80-hour per employee limit for paid sick leave will reset after March 31, 2021. Additionally, the previous 10-week per employee limit for paid family leave will reset after March 31, 2021.

Direct Stimulus Payments: A third round of payments will be issued. $1,400 direct payments to individuals making less than $75K, as well as a child tax credit of up to $3,600 depending on the age of the child.

Grants for Restaurants: A program has been established to grant financial support (i.e., to cover payroll costs) for eligible businesses based on decline in gross revenue over 2020.

Extended – The Employee Retention Tax Credit: Employers who have continued to pay wages throughout COVID-19-related closures, or those who have experienced reduced revenue due to the pandemic through December 31, 2021, may be eligible for an extended tax credit. 

The American Rescue Plan Act is one of the most wide-spread efforts by the U.S. Government to combat the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For further COVID-19-related resources, check out our COVID-19 Employer Resources page or contact us for direct assistance. 

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What Are OSHA’s COVID-19 Requirements?

HR Question:

As an employer, I am concerned with creating a safe workplace for my employees, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are OSHA’s COVID-19 requirements?

HR Answer:

Since the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 Flu, regulatory agencies have been considering the creation of an infectious disease standard for employers. Until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes such a standard, the agency released some much-anticipated guidance surrounding COVID-19 in January 2021.

So no, while OSHA hasn’t released any COVID-19 requirements specifically aimed at communicable diseases, that does not mean there aren’t OSHA regulations employers need to consider as it relates to communicable diseases.

Basic Safety Regulations

In the absence of a specific communicable disease standard, the most important OSHA guideline employers need to remember is the “General Duty Clause.” This over-arching clause is a catch-all for OSHA which states that employers have a “duty to provide employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” This arguably would include preventing the spread of infectious disease among employees. The General Duty Clause allows OSHA to enforce reasonable safety measures in the event that they do not have a specific standard to enforce.

Potential Citations

OSHA requirements do not stop there. Employers could be opening themselves up to citations directly related to their handling of common COVID-19 related situations should they fail to ensure a safe workplace. Violations can infringe upon several categories, such as the General Duty Clause, Personal Protective Equipment, Bloodborne Pathogen, and Respirator Protection violations, just to name a few. For example, some employers have handed out N95 masks – an innocent enough action, but OSHA considers these masks as “respirators” which require medical evaluation and fit testing. Should employees be found using such tools without the proper training, it could mean a citation. Now more than ever, employers should keep these standards in mind when reviewing their safety protocol in the workplace.

Communicable Disease Policy

OSHA requirements aside, it may be best practice that employers consider the implementation of a Communicable Disease policy as part of their Health and Safety program.  A Communicable Disease policy should be written to assure employees that any employment decision involving someone with a real or perceived communicable disease will be made with informed medical judgment and confidentiality. Additionally, employers must agree to involve medical professionals such as an occupational health provider who clearly understands the risk of transmission and impact on others in the workplace. Such a policy will assure that employers are proactive in protecting employee safety and health.

Thank you to Patti Dunham, MBA, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP for contributing to this edition of our HR Question of the Week!

During these uncertain times, be sure to check out our COVID-19 Employer Resources for webinars, resource guides, our Return to Work Guide, and more to help you navigate your business through the challenges you are facing.

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New Year, New COVID Questions: Mandate the Vaccine? Extend Paid Leave?

HR Question:

Although I was hoping to leave the challenges of 2020 behind, I’m finding that they’re seeping into 2021 – along with new challenges. Now, I’m faced with new COVID questions to confront: mandate COVID vaccines … or not? Extend Paid Sick Leave and EFMLA … or not? How do I make the best decisions here?

HR Answer:

Unfortunately, COVID is still with us, but hope is on the horizon with the vaccine. Employers across the country (and the world) are struggling with the same COVID questions you are about whether or not to mandate that all employees get vaccinated. The EEOC has made it clear that employers CAN require that employees get the COVID vaccine (in most cases).  However, the question becomes whether employers SHOULD require it. There is no perfect answer, so we’ll default to the typical lawyer answer: “It depends.”

Companies need to consider whether mandating vaccination is necessary. Because each business is different, there is no universal litmus test for employers.

Here are some common factors that employers should consider:

  • In what industry is your company? (Healthcare is different than construction.)
  • What are other similar businesses doing? (We’re all in this together.)
  • Are your employees designated to an early phase/group for vaccine eligibility?
  • If not, when could you reasonably expect the vaccine to be readily available? (There’s no need to create a stir now if your employee population consists primarily of healthy people in their twenties and thirties who will be toward the end of the eligibility list.)
  • If there is continued exposure, how will that harm your business?
  • How will your employees react?
  • What will the consequence be for employees who refuse to get vaccinated?
  • Who is going to be the “Vaccine Police” and track everything? (“1, 2, 3 … Not IT!”)

 

It’s okay to take a “wait and see” approach

These are not easy questions. Keep in mind that the law requires employers to make accommodations for individuals with disabilities and religious concerns. Also important: there is no prize for being the first to mandate vaccination. At this point, many businesses are encouraging employees to get vaccinated, but taking a “wait and see” approach when it comes to mandating. Part of the “encouraging” process includes educating employees about the benefits of vaccination. This includes reminding them that the company will not be providing paid leave if they are off for COVID purposes. If your employees are already on board with vaccination, there is no reason to take a heavy-handed approach.

Should you extend Paid Sick Leave and EFMLA?

The other COVID questions keeping HR professionals awake at night is what to do about extending Paid Sick Leave and Emergency FMLA. Congress and the President gave companies the option to continue providing these leaves to employees and receive tax credits through March 31, 2021. Many of our clients are continuing the leaves. Some are not.

Here are factors to consider:

  • How has leave usage impacted staffing and customer service?
  • Have employees been using the leave properly or abusing the leave?
  • Is it a hardship on the company or other employees to continue providing leave?
  • What is the impact on employees who legitimately need the leave?
  • How will the decision impact employee morale?
  • How many employees are currently on leave?
  • Is the employer a public or private entity?

 

Communication is key

Regardless of your decision, communication is key. It is critical for employers to communicate the decision to end or extend benefits so that employees are aware of their options. The decision should be company-wide so there is no favoritism of one employee versus another.

As usual, things with COVID continue to evolve. Good ideas a few months ago may be bad ideas today, so make sure to keep up to date. I know we’re all tired of hearing about these “unprecedented times,” but nonetheless, we will carry on. Deep breaths. Smile. 2021 is going to be better. Bring. It. ON!

Special thanks to attorney Lee Geiger from Graydon for contributing to this issue of our HR Question of the Week! As a valuable partner to strategic HR inc., we appreciate both his legal expertise and wit.

Whatever HR challenge your business may be facing, strategic HR inc. can help! Whether it’s by developing a comprehensive strategic business plan through our HR Strategy services or helping you navigate COVID-19 HR strategy issues, our team of experienced consultants is waiting to partner with you. 

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How Can I Attract and Retain Employees Despite COVID-19?

HR Question:

While some have traded their typical highway commute for a quick walk down their home hallways, others have returned to on-site facilities on a full-blown scale. Yet, fear of the coronavirus is abundant, and rightfully so. In this new reality, employers are trying to attract new talent, while retaining those who are already a part of the team. So, how can employers attract and retain employees despite COVID-19?

HR Answer:

As more employers return to open their doors, they may face job openings that weren’t there in March – whether employees chose to pursue other options, or a round of furloughs and layoffs become necessary. Either way, recruiting teams are diligently working to successfully fill these open roles. At the same time, employers are trying to address the concerns of some existing employees, many of whom are refusing to return to work or are resigning to stay at home and protect themselves and their families.

It’s clear the COVID-19 pandemic has not subsided, and according to the WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard, cases are growing on a more frequent basis. So how can employers reach the qualified candidates that they need, while assuring active candidates that there are steps in place to protect them?

Develop/Implement a Workplace Safety Plan

First things first: employers must invest the time, budget, and staffing hours necessary to formulate and install proper safety controls. The CDC made available step-by-step actions to assist employers in establishing measures that prevent coronavirus infection and exposure. Measures may include proper ventilation systems, hazard assessments, social distancing, physical barriers between workstations, handwashing stations, staggered shifts, cleaning and disinfecting protocols, personal protective equipment, and more. This plan is the basis for all the other methodologies below.

Job Ads, Recruiting, & Interviews

It’s paramount that employees understand from the get-go that COVID-19 safety measures are in place and that the matter is relevant to the employers they are considering. As a result, employers are now incorporating COVID-19 safety language into their job ads, such as these sample job ads from ONGIG. The recruiting process may include flexible arrangements for the interview process, as well. Organizations may choose to host virtual interviews via platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, and GoToMeeting to forego social distancing concerns altogether.

Onboarding

A robust onboarding process enables employers to jumpstart employee engagement and may eliminate questions later on. Incorporating COVID-19 safety education and awareness programs into your Onboarding Checklist may curb coronavirus fears. And for those who are not fearful, the learning experience may provide at least a new level of caution and an understanding of expectations to protect their co-workers. Connecting your team to credible online sources is another option that can be accomplished during onboarding.

Health and Mental Health Resources

Depression, loneliness, lack of engagement, and decreased communication are just a few of the impacts employees have suffered as a result of remote work and the overall pandemic environment. strategic HR inc. developed a list of resources to assist our clients in addressing these issues, not to mention the tremendous host of information available via reliable online entities such as the CDC’s “Mental Health” page and the “Global Healthy Living Foundation.” We encourage employers to provide ongoing communication about these opportunities and tools. For existing employees, this may mean weekly “did you know” type flyers or infographics. Another avenue may be enhanced education on the benefits and services available through the employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or the medical health insurance plan. By showing employees that the company understands their COVID-19 fears and cares about their well-being, employees are more likely to connect to the employer’s commitment to safety.

Community Support and Involvement

Not only are all eyes open to how employers are addressing COVID-19 safety in the workplace, but also on the employer’s actions (or lack thereof) in the communities where they reside. Employers can further grow their “employer of choice” brand by sponsoring or presenting COVID-19 safety webinars, having leaders serve on panels related to what employers are doing during the pandemic, or writing or contributing to articles. Another example is providing branded masks for employees. This is a simple effort that protects your team and provides brand acknowledgment.

 

Developing these and other strategies for addressing COVID-19 fears can go a long way to attract and retain top talent. Leadership, HR, Marketing, and Public Relations all play key roles in creating a winning plan – not just for the immediate future, but further down the line as companies face the next wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Take steps now to evaluate where your organization stands, research new information and resources, then go the extra mile to protect and educate your team members. The return on investment most likely will be felt both internally and externally as you attract and retain employees – despite COVID-19.

 

Thanks to Angela Dunaway, SPRH, SHRM-CP, for writing this edition of our HR Question of the Week!

During these uncertain times, be sure to check out our COVID-19 Employer Resources for webinars, resource guides, our Return to Work Guide, and more to help you navigate your business through the challenges you are facing.

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How to Adjust Your HR Practices as the Pandemic Continues

HR Question:

As many roles in our business community ebb and flow with the changes of 2020, the role and function of human resources has undergone massive change. How can I continue to adjust my HR practices as the pandemic continues?

HR Answer:

As organizations adjust to the changes 2020 has brought us, human resource professionals have taken on increasing responsibility and strategic importance. Business leaders are looking to HR to provide key information and strategic recommendations more frequently and on a higher level, while quickly trying to adjust their HR practices to meet the needs of the pandemic. As a business community, we’ve seen widespread change in areas including, but not limited to:

  • Workforce – The workforce landscape has changed for most employers, such as moving their teams to a remote setting versus being in the office; facing reductions in force, shifting and adding responsibilities as teams adjust to smaller numbers, and an increase in focus on mental well-being.
  • Financial – Businesses are seeing more and more unplanned expenses while dealing with decreasing revenues.
  • Compliance – With new legislation, such as FFCRA and the CARES Act, HR professionals, in particular, have been actively trying to navigate the new internal processes, policies, and procedures which continue to change rapidly.
  • Policies – Policies and procedures look different now than they did at the beginning of the year. PTO is being highly encouraged – if not required – to be taken ASAP; telecommuting policies have been implemented on the fly; social media guidelines are garnering even more attention during heightened tensions and political conversations; return to work policies have been created, along with COVID-19 exposure processes and guidelines.
  • Mental Well-being – Employees are dealing with rapid changes, increased health concerns, financial strain, and a loss of routine everyday activities. All of these can strain productivity and mental well-being.

So, how can a business owner, a CFO, or an HR professional adjust HR practices to support their organizations and – their biggest asset – their employees?

Prepare for a Future Crisis

Develop an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that everyone should have a plan for disasters and emergencies. Take this opportunity to reflect upon how your organization addressed COVID-19, and use any opportunities you discuss to prepare your Emergency Plans for the future. Additionally, share similar resources with your employees to help them prepare for disasters and different types of public health emergencies with their loved ones.

Evaluate and Restructure Roles & Responsibilities

Completing an assessment of your current workforce will provide a foundation for retention and re-recruiting strategies. Determine what roles have changed and identify any gaps in knowledge due to layoffs, terminations, or resignations. Prepare a re-recruiting strategy based on the information identified in your assessment.

Re-establish Goals to Align with Corporate Objectives

It’s very possible that company goals have shifted and changed over the course of the year – pandemic or not. It’s important that your HR team understands any changes to those goals, as they will play a key role in getting employees aligned with the corporate objectives and moving toward the same goal. Failing to get every worker to understand their own part in organizational strategy can easily lead to a failure of the strategy itself.

Be Ambassadors of Company Culture

The culture that contributed to the growth of the organization can be destroyed in a heartbeat during a crisis. How can HR fill this role of a Company Culture Ambassador? By engaging employees, maintaining open communication both ways, and by finding creative opportunities for connection and collaboration, HR professionals can begin to mend any damaged ties that maintained the company culture.

And in these particularly tense times, strive to have a respectful, collaborative, and supportive environment – an environment that helps employees to understand, value, and accept differences between people by providing the opportunity to discuss differences in a structured manner.

Communicate with Empathy

Communication is one of the most critical aspects of organizational success and an area in which HR must master and lead by example. It is important to be transparent, empathetic, and to respond with understanding and concern. Be an advocate and let both the leaders of the organization and the employees know you care about their well-being and their future.

Address Employee Development and Succession Planning

If there is an opportunity to take advantage of completing rainy day projects or training, strive to make it meaningful. Now is a good time to address any compliance-related training. Consider a survey to learn what employees want to learn, or take this opportunity to upskill those still on your team by taking advantage of virtual training opportunities.

In the last few months, professionals have had to be extremely agile and willing to adjust their HR practices. Now more than ever, HR’s involvement in day-to-day and strategic planning is integral to the future success of an organization. The future of HR’s role will continue to evolve, but it is no secret that HR leaders can and will ensure the impact on organizations and the workforce are carefully considered, addressed in a timely fashion, with the well-being of leaders, employees, and the business in mind.

Thank you to Janine Cummings, HR Business Development Consultant, for contributing to this edition of our HR Question of the Week! 

Whatever HR challenge your business may be facing, strategic HR inc. can help! Whether it’s by developing a comprehensive strategic business plan through our HR Strategy services or helping you navigate COVID-19 HR strategy issues, our team of experienced consultants is waiting to partner with you.  

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Back-to-School: Frequently Asked Questions about Leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)

Special thanks to the HR Pros at the HR Support Center for sharing their expertise regarding Back-to-School leave requests!

 

Q: If children and their parents can choose between in-person schooling or online schooling, can we deny leave to employees who choose online schooling?

A: We don’t know yet. EFMLA can be used when a child’s school or place of care is “closed,” such that the child cannot be there in person. This might suggest that if the option is available to attend in-person, that those choosing online school would not be eligible for leave. However, we expect that many school districts will need a certain percentage of students to take classes online to make in-person school possible at a sufficiently reduced capacity. In effect, these schools will be “closed” to a certain portion of the student body and it may or may not matter whether the parents chose the online option. We expect guidance from the Department of Labor soon that will answer this question definitively.


Q. If kids are going to school in-person two days a week and doing school from home three days a week, do we have to give a parent three days a week off or can we refuse intermittent leave?

A. If you’re in the Southern District of New York, you must grant intermittent EFMLA if that is what an employee needs and asks for. That district includes the counties of Bronx, Dutchess, New York, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, and Westchester.

In the rest of the country, the answer is not clear, but we certainly recommend providing intermittent leave (as does the Department of Labor). Employees with children are in desperate need of flexibility and understanding right now and refusing a request for intermittent leave may lead to low morale, low productivity, or the employee quitting.

Keep in mind that not all employees will want a full day off just because a child is doing school from home—many may request an hour or two in the morning and an hour or two in the afternoon. Being open to these kinds of requests should help you maximize productivity (as much as possible under tough circumstances) and reduce turnover.


Q. Can we set up childcare or tutoring in the workplace?

A.  While it may be possible (and we applaud the creativity), you’d want to consult with an attorney or someone else in your state that is familiar with the kind of licensing and insurance that would be required to do this. Even if you were only allowing children in the workplace occasionally, and they remained under the control of their parent, you’d want to check with your general liability carrier to make sure that it would cover incidents that involved a visiting child.


Q. Can I deny leave to an employee who has high schoolers who should be able to take care of themselves during the day?

A. No. However, if the child or children are 15 or older, you should require that the employee provide a statement or affirmation that there are special circumstances that cause the older child to need their care. They do not need to provide any further information beyond that statement (such as what the special circumstances are). If you feel it necessary, you can remind all employees that it is fraudulent to take FFCRA leave if they are not unable to work as a result of the care they will be providing.


Q. Can we require proof that the school or place of care is closed?

A. No. You can and should (for IRS documentation) require the names and ages of the child or children being cared for and the name of the school, place of care, or caregiver that is closed or unavailable due to COVID-19. You should also require a signed statement that the employee is unable to work because they need to provide care for the child or children. Finally, if the child or children are 15 or older, the employee needs to indicate that there are special circumstances (but doesn’t need to explain them).

We don’t encourage independent sleuthing to verify what an employee tells you, but if you feel that’s necessary, be very careful of doing anything that could infringe on an employee’s right to privacy. Also be consistent in verifying this kind of information—if you are only fact-checking certain employees, you’ll open yourself up to complaints of unfair treatment.


Q. Can I ask an employee to look for outside childcare?

A. You can ask or encourage employees to look for other options, but you can’t require any proof that they have done so and you can’t deny leave because you think they didn’t try. In this case, all an employee needs to provide in a request for FFCRA leave is a statement that no other suitable person will be taking care of the child when they have requested leave for that purpose. Ultimately, who is “suitable” will be up to a parent.


Q. Can I deny leave if I think or know an employee is lying about the need to care for a child?

A. There is significant risk in denying a request for FFCRA leave if an employee has provided the appropriate documentation. That said, if you believe the request is fraudulent, you should have a discussion with the employee before granting or denying leave. If it turns out that they were submitting a fraudulent request—and you have sufficient evidence to support that—you can take disciplinary action if it seems appropriate. If, after discussion, you think their request is more likely than not legitimate, you should grant it.

Be careful of disciplining an employee who requests leave but doesn’t meet the necessary criteria. These leave entitlements can be confusing, and it would be unlawful retaliation to discipline an employee who was attempting to use their right to leave in good faith.


Q. If an employee’s stay-at-home spouse is sick with COVID-19 and unable to care for their children, can they take FFCRA leave to do so?

A. Yes, the children’s regular care provider (the stay-at-home spouse) is unavailable because of COVID-19, so the employee would be able to use either EPSL or EFMLA to provide care while their spouse is not able to do so.


Q. What if an employee won’t fill out the required FFCRA documentation?

A. The earliest an employer can require notice is after the first workday of FFCRA leave. (The regulations require employees to provide notice of their need for school closure leave as soon as practicable, but there are no consequences if the employee doesn’t do so.) If, after the first workday, the employee does not provide sufficient documentation to support their request for leave, they must be notified of the problem and given an opportunity to provide what is needed. If the employee still does not provide completed documentation after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so, then the employer is not required to provide FFCRA leave.


Q. Can we terminate an employee who is unable to work because they need to care for a child but have used up their leave under the FFCRA?

A. Assuming that no other leave laws apply, termination is an option. But you may want to instead consider offering the employee an unpaid personal leave of absence or revisiting whether a flexible or part-time work schedule would be better than losing the employee entirely. Recruiting, hiring, and training are all expensive undertakings, so if there’s a way to keep an employee around—even if they need some time off—that is likely better for your bottom line.

If you do decide to terminate an employee who is out of leave, make sure you can be consistent in that response going forward. If you are flexible with some employees while firing others, you will open yourself up to claims of discrimination.


Q. What if we find out after we’ve granted and paid for an employee’s leave that it was fraudulent? Do we make them pay us back or report them to the IRS?

A. There is not yet clear guidance about how to handle this situation, so we recommend calling your local Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor. They are generally very responsive and may be able to provide some guidance based on your situation.

 

The Virtual HR Support Center is a do-it-yourself, ready 24/7, at your fingertips resource for everything Human Resources. From employee handbooks, job descriptions and other commonly used HR documents, to up-to-the-minute law alerts, state and federal law libraries, and unique training videos, the Virtual HR Support Center will help you effectively manage your HR compliance and employee relations needs. Contact Us to learn how the Virtual HR Support Center can put all the DIY HR tools you need at your fingertips.

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How Can HR Navigate the Back to School Season?

HR Question:

As schools begin their new year, the format of school is changing nearly daily – which is hard enough for kids and parents without the added stress of returning in a COVID-19 environment. As HR and business leaders, how can we best navigate the back to school season? What are other organizations doing to try and accommodate employees’ needs to be home with their kids?

HR Answer:

It’s no secret that schools are facing a unique and intimidating challenge as they try to return to a sense of “normal”. Parents and schools are turning to CDC guidance as they develop plans to educate and engage students in a time of extraordinary safety concerns and varying accessibility. In turn, employers are impacted as employees must accommodate their schools’ plans for their children.

As business leaders and HR professionals, we must realize that this is an extremely fluid situation, and there, categorically, is no one-size-fits-all! Every employee will have different needs as there is no singular standard school plan that districts are following. And, even if a plan is in place, we are already seeing it change rapidly based on outbreaks, exposures, needs to quarantine, and many other variables.

So how is HR supposed to navigate all of the plans, requests, and changing needs of this unique back to school season? If an employee approaches you about their need to be at home with their child, start first by asking the employee the following:

Provide the School’s Plan: When an employee makes you aware that their child’s school’s plan may interfere with their ability to work their normal schedule, request the employee to provide a copy of their most recent school plan.

Ask the Employee to Provide Potential Solution(s): We recommend asking the employee to submit ideas of how they can accomplish their job based on needs presented by the school schedule. This would be somewhat like the ADA accommodation interactive process, but without the legal obligation to consider. Encourage the employee to engage with peers in their workgroup to ensure adequate coverage. This can actually help team cohesiveness and empathy if there is a willingness to help out a colleague.

Next, the company and employee should consider and discuss:

  • What are specifics of how the school needs overlap with the work schedule?
  • Can the employee perform their job from a remote location?
  • What is the age of the child to determine how much actual oversight will be needed? If the employee is working from home, is it even feasible that they can actually work, or will they need to be actively involved in the child’s learning or have too many distractions? (This may vary from child to child, depending on learning needs.)
  • Does the position have flexibility regarding when the work needs to be done, or can it be done during off-hours?
  • What resources does the employee have to be able to work from home and what will the employer need to provide? (i.e., computer, internet connection, phone access, equipment, etc.) What are the costs associated with this? (Note: check your state laws if the employer is required to reimburse this to the employee.)
  • How will any changes impact the ability of other employees/departments to function effectively? If significant assistance is needed from others, or significant ongoing preparation is needed for the employee to be able to work from home, it may not be feasible.
  • If working from home is not feasible, can the employee work an adapted schedule or a different shift and still meet the company’s needs? (i.e., coming in early or starting late, working evenings, weekends, or alternate shifts)
  • How will communication be established between the employee, manager, and the team?

This is just a start of things to consider, and HR may find themselves having to get a little creative (i.e., flexible hours, working remote, onsite daycare, assisting with the cost of a caregiver, intermittent leave, job sharing). Every aspect should be looked at from both the employee’s and the business’ perspective.

While a company has no obligation to accommodate such a request, refusing to accommodate presents its own share of challenges. Employees may quit to stay home and take care of their children, or request leave (don’t forget the potential benefit of EPSLA and EFMLEA). This may leave the company short of the staff and the skills needed to be productive. Employers should also consider the perception of employees, customers, and the public if they refuse to work with employees.

What works for one employee may not work for another, even if they are in the same role. If you choose to try to work with the employee, communication is critical. The plan may need to change as you work out the logistics or as school plans change.

These are extraordinary times that are presenting extraordinary challenges. Even if you can’t fully meet each employee’s needs, showing a willingness to try and work with the employee can go a long way toward how the company is viewed. If you aren’t able to make it work, make sure the employee understands the reasoning why. This isn’t the first time HR has had to prepare for the back to school season, but most assuredly – it will be the most unique.

Thanks to Cathleen Snyder, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, for writing this HR Question of the Week!

Whatever HR challenge your business may be facing, strategic HR inc. can help! Whether it’s by developing a Back-To-School plan, developing a comprehensive strategic business plan through our HR Strategy services, or helping you navigate COVID-19 HR strategy issues, our team of experienced consultants is waiting to partner with you.  

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How Can We Maintain New Hire Engagement When Onboarding Remotely?

HR Question:

We recently hired a new team member, and we’re worried about onboarding them when we are all working remotely due to COVID-19. How can we maintain new hire engagement when doing onboarding remotely?

HR Answer:

For some companies, remote onboarding is nothing new. They may have team members across the US, or even internationally, and are familiar with the process of bringing someone on board without ever physically meeting the person. For these companies, they are able to maintain new hire engagement when onboarding remotely because remote work is already built into their culture. But, for the majority of others, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted unprecedented pivots to their day-to-day operations, including adjusting their onboarding plans to a new remote structure.

Many companies prefer in-person onboarding for the opportunity to build casual rapport with their new employees, and to introduce them to the in-office environment. Employees enjoy the opportunity to take new team members out to lunch, introduce them to the rest of the team, and help them acclimate to a new environment. The in-person onboarding creates a sense of immersion, allows the employee to live and breathe within their new environment, and requires the new hire to remain engaged in their day. So how do companies ensure these new employees feel engaged from the moment they sign their letter of employment – even from behind their own computer screen at home?

Engage from the get-go

When you’re onboarding a new employee, it’s more than just paperwork. In the SHRM article  “Virtual Onboarding of Remote Workers More Important Than Ever,” Lianne Vineberg, Founder and Director of Talent & Recruitment at Talent in the 6ix, states that “the No. 1 thing to remember [when onboarding a new employee] is that you’re building a foundation for the new hire to have new relationships in the workplace and helping them to have a voice, which is even more important when they are remote.” Furthermore, employers should strive to make virtual onboarding seamless, dynamic, and informative.

Without the opportunity to physically immerse the new hire into the company culture and environment, it becomes imperative that strong relationships and lines of communication are established early, making them feel comfortable and welcomed.

Consider adding helpful touchpoints to encourage engagement. Once the employment letter is signed, kick off the celebration by sending the new employee a welcome email.  Best practice is for the direct supervisor to send this email, introducing themselves and establishing a relationship. Consider sending the typical welcome packet they would get on day one to their home, giving them an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the company even further.  Encourage the new employee to set up their home office, including tips and tricks from their new team. Ensure all necessary technology is available to help the new employee start their first day at 100%. This could include sending them a laptop or other necessary hardware for work from home.  Send a welcome gift to the new employee’s home – maybe a plant, company swag, or office decorations. It’s the thought that counts.

Embrace the familiar

When onboarding a new employee remotely, there are some steps that won’t change, no matter where someone is working. Many companies have an hour set aside for the new employee to work with HR on benefits, handbook review, and typical onboarding tasks. HR will need to review technology, remote or on-site requirements, make sure that they have the tools that they may need, etc. While these rote tasks don’t accomplish establishing that “welcome to the team” feeling, they present an opportunity for more creative connections – such as chatting with HR as the paperwork is filled out and allowing time to get to know their HR contact.

Start off strong

In their first full week, establish weekly video check-ins around the same time to create a sense of routine and an open line of communication.  Assign a mentor and begin to create 30-, 60-, 90-day development plans. Schedule Zoom meetings with each member of the new employee’s department to allow time for those casual get-to-know-you conversations that would normally happen around the office. According to Miro’s “The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work,” you’ll want to formally introduce them to the team and provide a bit of background on them in advance. Make sure the team understands the new employee’s role. To increase engagement and bring some fun into the day, run some team games or activities virtually involving the new employee to break the ice.

Keep up the momentum

Continue checking in with the new team member to make sure there are no unanswered questions. In their second week, schedule Zoom meetings with other departments.  If the company is small enough, schedule video 1:1 with every employee.  Consider scheduling a virtual lunch with 2 or 3 employees, just to continue building new relationships. Keep these opportunities and events going throughout the first month. Once you reach the one-month anniversary of their first day, celebrate again! Make it a big deal to schedule time to talk through the first month of employment.  Consider this 30-day check-in with their direct supervisor and Human Resources to get two different perspectives.

Onboarding may look a little different right now and the practice may not be exactly the same, but it’s now more important than ever to bring new employees on board in a successful, welcoming, and lasting manner. It’s up to managers to ensure that their team, both new and tenured employees, is moving forward as smoothly as can be expected amid the pandemic. The key is having a clear plan and frequent two-way communication.

Would you like to find out how engaged your employees are? strategic HR inc. can help. We will create a custom survey to mirror your work environment and goals for the business, administer the survey as a neutral third party, and summarize the findings with recommendations for improvement. To learn more about our employee surveyscontact us now.

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How Can I Prevent Tension Between My Remote Team and On-Site Team?

HR Question:

Due to COVID-19, some of my team members are able to work from home. However, I have other team members that I need to be present in the office. This has understandably caused some frustration for those that need to be on-site, as they may feel that the situation is unfair. How can I prevent tension between my remote team and my on-site team members?

HR Answer:

While telework can have many benefits (both actual and perceived), the fact is that it doesn’t work for every type of role. What may be possible for a designer, accountant, sales member, or marketer may not be possible for the office’s receptionist, the engineering team for the building, or essential workers on the front line. This can cause the perception of inequities between the “work-from-home-haves” and the “work-from-home-have-nots,” leading to tension, friction, and frustration. If your work environment is a blend of remote and on-site employees, consider these key actions that an employer can take to help prevent tension between their remote and on-site team.

Prevent Tension By Communicating

First, communication is critical.  For employees whose roles may not allow them to work from home, it’s important they understand why the opportunity cannot be afforded. Equally as important, managers and leaders should make it clear that their willingness to work these essential roles is more than appreciated. This can be done through ongoing communication, manager and leaders going out of their way to recognize team members on a daily basis, or even having those that are working remotely create thank you messages to the essential on-site staff.

Say Thank You

Small acts of gratitude could go a long way as well. For those who are on-site, show your appreciation by providing an occasional lunch or donuts (allowing for social distancing and COVID-19 safety measures) and letting the on-site workers know they are valued. Consider the approach a local Cincinnati waste removal company took to thank their essential workers for working throughout the pandemic. Ensure that managers and leaders are present and actively thanking team members for stepping up.

Educate Your Team

Finally, be sure that you are educating your staff – no matter their role. Educating the essential, on-site workers on how their role contributes to the overall success of the company.  It is also important that any concerns that essential workers may have are addressed to the extent possible. Where there are safety concerns, ensure essential workers and anyone coming on the premises have a clear understanding of the measures that have been put in place to keep them safe. The need for communication and education cannot be overstated.

For those employees who are working from home, educate them on why this opportunity is available. Yes, there are personal benefits, but there are also business reasons that are key to understand as well.  Remote employees need to understand that this privilege is not available to everyone. Often, it’s the work that essential workers do, manufacturing, healthcare, grocery workers, etc. that helps make the remote work possible. Take the opportunity to share the expectations of your remote team, and how their actions will directly contribute to the health of the business, particularly during this trying time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges very few ever expected. With the varying levels of risk that come with working on-site, it’s easy for potential frustrations to occur when some employees are expected in the office while others are not. Prevent tension between your remote and on-site teams with frequent communication, saying thank you often, and educating everyone on the team as the situation develops.

Communication often seems like a “no-brainer.” HOW you communicate is often as important as WHAT you communicate when it comes to getting results! strategic HR inc. has years of experience preparing communications for a variety of audiences and topics. Visit our Communications page to learn how we can assist you with various communication-based projects.

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What are the COVID-19 Safety Measures for Returning to Work?

It may feel as if the country is taking a collective breath after holding it since March. But many are worried if we breathe too soon or too deeply, we’ll inhale more than we bargained for, leading to a worse global catastrophe in the form of a second wave of coronavirus infections. If you ask 100 people about the proper timing for reopening businesses and the economy, you’ll get 100 different answers — 200 if you come back next week and ask them again. But one thing experts agree on are the safety measures to use once you decide to reopen your business. So what are the COVID-19  safety measures you need to consider in order to return to work?

5 Categories of COVID-19 Safety Measures

Different states and jurisdictions have different required measures, and which resources are appropriate for you varies based on the kind of business you run. Common examples of the five categories of COVID-19 safety measures you should make a plan for are:

  1. Social Distancing: Making it easy (and even possible in some cases) for staff and customers to keep a safe distance from one another
  2. Hygiene Protocols: Systems, policies, and tools to prevent surface contact spread of the COVID-19 virus
  3. Staffing and Operations: policies and systems to keep your employees informed and safe
  4. Cleaning and Disinfection: For both employees and customers who show symptoms, as well as generally throughout your place of business
  5. Information Flow: Maintaining an up-to-date and accurate understanding of news and developments about the pandemic

Let’s look at all five categories in more detail— what they mean, why they’re important, and some of the best ways to service them effectively.

1. Social Distancing

Social distancing is effective because of the range of a human sneeze or cough. Maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet while in public is one of the strongest measures to prevent becoming infected or spreading infection.

To encourage social distancing in your business, you can:

  • Post signage in public spaces encouraging and guiding proper distancing.
  • Calculate the maximum number of people you can have inside while maintaining proper distance and enforce this maximum.
  • Reassess systems and protocols so your staff can maintain social distance.
  • Identify “choke points” where people are at risk of passing within 6 feet of each other and develop systems to prevent that from happening.
  • Place safety shields at counters where customers have to stand closer than 6 feet from a cashier or other employee.

2. Hygiene Protocols

After maintaining social distance, the best thing we can do to protect ourselves and others is to make sure we observe recommended hygiene standards while at work. A few policies you can put into place to help with this:

  • Encourage and enforce frequent hand-washing protocols for your employees. Use the models for food service or medical care, even if you aren’t in those fields.
  • Maintain sufficient supplies for frequent hand-washing.
  • Require employees to wear face masks and consider extending that policy to customers who enter your location, depending on local regulations.
  • Wherever possible, set up zero-contact protocols for delivery of what you sell.

3. Staffing & Operations

A micropreneur with a private office or a security guard who works alone in an empty building don’t need to worry about their co-workers and spreading COVID-19. For others, it’s co-workers who will be the most at risk should you become infected.

Beyond social distancing while on staff, you can take the following measures to help keep people safe:

  • Provide employees with sufficient training about your social distancing and hygiene measures, and follow up to make sure they’re being enforced.
  • Look at your current procedures and protocols for ways to reduce employee contact. For example, have people on the same shift arrive at different times, rather than all at once, and move workstations farther apart.
  • Adopt an “err-on-the-side-of-caution” policy for calling in sick so employees stay home if there is any chance they have become infected.
  • Adjust timelines of major projects to get by with less staff, operating with fewer people until the danger has passed.

4. Cleaning & Disinfecting

Although the most common form of transmission is through body fluids, COVID-19 can survive on skin and flat surfaces for long enough to put people at risk. Since most businesses operate in part by having people touch things all the time, this is a potential point of vulnerability. To combat this, you can:

  • Provide hand-washing or hand sanitizer stations throughout your place of business, including in public areas.
  • Note areas that get touched frequently, like doorknobs, restrooms, safety screens, and tools. Establish procedures to wipe them down with sanitizer on a regular basis.
  • Deeply disinfect your entire facility if an employee or regular customer is diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • Make disinfection and cleaning checklists for your employees to follow, and confirm they are followed consistently.

5. Information Flow

Our global network is one reason we’ve been able to take successful steps to contain the virus so far. As things return to normal, it’s important to remain informed from sources you can trust.

When searching for information about the COVID-19 situation, consider the following:

  • Use fact-checkers like Media Bias Fact Check to confirm the sources of your information are accurate and delivered with as little agenda as possible.
  • Bookmark the websites of your local and regional health authorities, and check them regularly.
  • Set aside time each week to communicate what you’ve learned with your staff so everybody is on the same page.
  • Stay current on changes in recommendations about COVID-19 safety measures. As we’ve already seen, best practices change as scientists learn more about the virus.

Nothing can guarantee your business won’t be impacted directly by COVID-19, but it’s important to follow the steps above as we move forward. These are challenging times, but approaching your business with a thoughtful and careful process will help your customers and employees feel more comfortable coming back to your business.

Special thanks to Justin Latenhaer with MoneyCrashers for contributing to this week’s HR Question of the Week. Justin Latenhaer is a Midwest-based consultant who provides strategies to businesses on how to market and run their companies. During COVID-19, he’s been offering steps to help businesses restart.

During these uncertain times, be sure to check out our COVID-19 Employer Resources for webinars, resource guides, our Return to Work Guide, and more to help you navigate your business through the challenges you are facing.

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How Can I Prepare My Organization for Success During and After COVID-19?

HR Question:

As my business continues to feel the impact of COVID-19, how can I prepare my organization for success after COVID-19 – even if we face a second wave?

HR Answer:

Although there are national and state-wide efforts to re-open the economy and relax restrictions, businesses and employees continue to feel the effects of COVID-19. According to a study conducted by McKinsey & Company, “the challenge is especially acute for small businesses (those with 500 or fewer employees), which account for a disproportionate share of the vulnerable jobs.” McKinsey & Company emphasized this point further by highlighting the current vulnerable state of these businesses, as they account for 54 percent (30 million) of the jobs most vulnerable during COVID-19.

While many U.S. businesses have re-opened, a large proportion of them remains at half-capacity, employing fewer people, and/or maintaining a mix of on-site and remote workers. Those businesses are also seeing a decline in business and feeling the impacts of customers and suppliers hit harder by the pandemic. This has required leaders to make adjustments to their operations in order to survive in this “recovery” period but wondering whether it’s temporary or the “new norm.” Either way, many leaders are wondering how to prepare their organization for after COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers immediate guidance for employers in helping to maintain healthy operations which include reviewing workspaces, promoting safe hygiene, revising sick and leave policies, and minimizing the number of employees in the workplace to prevent further spread of the virus.

To best prepare your business for future success after (or during) COVID-19, senior leaders and HR professionals should gather key stakeholders together to conduct a post-COVID-19 Organizational Assessment to identify where their organization stands now and what changes are needed for the future.  A multitude of issues should be reviewed, some of which include:

  • Budget
  • Pipeline of work & future forecasting
  • Reviewing work practices for efficiency and cost-effectiveness
  • Reviewing and re-aligning talent
  • Succession planning
  • Review talent attraction activities

The ultimate goal of a Post-COVID-19 Organizational Assessment is to answer two questions: how do we pivot to succeed while in recovery mode, and how do we prepare should we find ourselves in another crisis in the future?

This is an all-encompassing effort to assess the health and stability of your business. It’s going to require collaboration, out-of-the-box thinking, considering new ways of operating, and taking a critical look at your entire business – your finances, your people, your supply chain, your operations, and your customers.

This a key opportunity to empower your HR team members and leaders, and to engage outside, unbiased professionals. This allows you to harness a diverse set of perspectives and expertise to benefit your business – for today and tomorrow.

 

Thanks to Terry Salo, Sr. HR Consultant with strategic HR inc. for contributing to this week’s HR Question of the Week!

 

Whatever your business may be facing, strategic HR inc. can help! Whether it’s by developing a Post-COVID-19 Assessment, developing a comprehensive strategic business plan through our HR Strategy services, or helping you navigate COVID-19 employee relation issues, our team of experienced consultants is waiting to partner with you.  

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Am I Able to Make Changes to My FSA Due to COVID-19?

Thank you to Shelly Hodges-Konys, CBC, Director of Compliance with HORAN for her contribution to this HR Question of the Week!

HR Question:

I have heard that I am able to make changes to my Flexible Spending Account (FSA) mid-year due to COVID-19?  Is this true and what are the requirements of such a change?

HR Answer:

There is a saying about change by William Arthur Ward that I once read, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”   If there is one thing that we can count on from a regulatory perspective, it is that we need to learn to adjust the sails and do so quickly.  We have received numerous questions from clients over the past few weeks about the changes an employee may make to benefits received through Section 125 pre-tax plans. It has been difficult to respond because none of the guidance up to this point has provided any clear relief for flexible spending accounts, dependent care accounts, or pre-tax benefit elections.  However, yesterday the IRS issued two notices – Notice 2020-29 and Notice 2020-33 that provide welcome flexibility for employers.

The IRS rules generally require elections made under Section 125 plans to be irrevocable during the plan year, unless an employee experiences a qualifying mid-year change event (e.g., a change in status that results in a corresponding change in eligibility).  IRS Notice 2020-29 permits employers during the 2020 calendar year to amend their plans to allow for some additional mid-year changes that are not permitted under normal circumstances.  The new guidance permits plans to allow employees to make the following changes on a prospective basis:

  • Make a new election for health benefits if the employee initially declined the employer plan;
  • Change an existing election for health benefits including changing plans offered by the employer and changing coverage level (for example, an employee may change from an HDHP plan to PPO coverage offered by the employer or change from employee only to family coverage);
  • Drop coverage if the employee attests that they intend to enroll in other group health insurance coverage;
  • Change or revoke a health care flexible spending account election; and/or
  • Change or revoke a dependent care flexible spending account election.

Further, elections made for flexible spending accounts, are generally use-it or lose-it.  If account balances are not used by the end of the plan year (or grace period for plans that provide for a 2.5 month grace period), the money is forfeited by the participant and retained by the plan and applied to the costs of administering the plan.  The new guidance also provides flexibility for employers to allow employees an additional period of time to use unspent flexible spending account balances.   This relief applies only to non-calendar year plan years ending in 2020 or plan years ending in 2019 that have a grace period that extends into 2020.   These plans may be amended to allow a participant to use funds that otherwise would have been forfeited during the 2020 calendar year for expenses incurred through December 31, 2020.

This relief is available to all health and dependent care flexible spending account plans, including those health flexible spending accounts that are limited purpose or health savings account compatible.

IRS Notice 2020-33, provides additional relief for health care flexible spending account plans that have a carryover feature.  A carryover feature allows participants to carryover up to $500 from the previous plan year into the subsequent plan year. For plan years beginning in 2020, the maximum amount of carryover a plan can allow has been increased from $500 to $550. This amount will now be indexed for inflation on an ongoing basis.

For employers that sponsor high deductible health plans, be aware that this relief did not change the rules regarding the interaction of flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts (HSAs).  Employees that participate in a flexible spending account with a rollover provision,  a 2 ½ grace period, or are offered an extended coverage period are ineligible to make HSA contributions for the duration of the coverage period (unless the flexible spending account is HSA compatible or amended to be HSA compatible).

All of the relief offered by the guidance is completely optional.  Employers may choose whether to adopt some of the provisions, all of the provisions, or none of the provisions.  Employers who wish to provide this flexibility to plan participants will need to amend their plans and have until December 31, 2021, to do so.  Plan amendments may be adopted retroactively to January 1, 2020, as long as plan participants are informed of the changes and the plan is operated in accordance with those changes.

Thank you to HORAN for providing the content for our Question of the Week. HORAN serves as a trusted advisor on employee benefits, wealth management and life and disability insurance. To learn more about HORAN, please contact HORAN for additional information.

Visit our COVID-19 Employer Resources to find the information, links, and tools you need to move your business forward in these uncertain times.

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Do I Need to Adjust My COBRA Process Due to COVID-19?

HR Question:

I’ve seen several changes in employee benefits and programs as a result of the pandemic. Do I need to adjust my COBRA process due to COVID-19?

HR Answer:

Yes, due to COVID-19, there have been many changes to group health plans, pension plans, and other welfare plans, such as COBRA, FMLA, and more. As businesses and leaders have scrambled to meet the fluctuating needs of this time, many of our federal agencies have done the same.

Specifically, as it relates to COBRA, the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service have published information and updates on COBRA deadlines during the pandemic, providing relief to those impacted by the virus.

As you may know, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) is a program that provides for the continuation of group health coverage for some employees and their families when they experience a job loss or reduction of hours. Your normal, already established COBRA processes may be altered or adjusted as new and unique situations continue to crop up as a result of COVID-19. Not only will your processes adjust, but the way that you communicate these benefits and processes will as well.

The revisions outlined in the released statement requires group health plans, disability and other welfare plans, and employee pension benefit plans to extend their timelines by a period of time they designate as the “Outbreak Period”.  The Outbreak Period is from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the end of the declared National Emergency.  The ending date, obviously, is an unknown date at this time.  Simply stated, employers must exclude the time during the Outbreak Period when determining deadlines for COBRA.  This would include deadlines for notification as well as election.

As an example, COBRA elections must be typically made within 60 days of the notice.  Under this extension, the Outbreak Period is ignored so if the qualifying event occurs during the Outbreak Period, the election period deadline will extend to 60 days after the end of the Outbreak Period.  What does that mean?  Someone you sent a notice to last week will have 60 days after the end of the Outbreak Period (unknown at this time) to elect coverage.

Another pertinent example is with COBRA Payments.  Typically COBRA provides a 45-day premium period with a 30-day grace period.  Under this extension, the Outbreak Period is ignored in determining the deadline for premium payments under COBRA.  It is noted that claims do not have to be paid during this non-payment time, but they must be paid immediately upon resumption of the benefits after the premium is paid.

Other areas of COBRA that are impacted by these adjustments include:

  • HIPAA Special Enrollment Rights
  • Employee Notice of a Qualifying Event or of Disability
  • Deadline for Participants to Make an Initial Claim
  • Deadline for Appeal of a Denied Claim
  • Interim Claims Procedures Deadlines

Additional details on all of these items can be found on the Federal Register.

As an HR professional, keep in mind these extension periods and review deadlines before terminating coverages or not allowing enrollment due to deadline considerations.  Better to be safe during this time of change!

strategic HR inc. has the answers to all of your tough Benefits and Compensation-related questions, particularly when addressing the new challenges that COVID-19 has presented. Please visit our Benefits & Compensation page for more information or our Employer’s Resource Guide to Coronavirus for more resources.

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Characteristics of Strong Leadership During COVID-19

HR Question:

As a result of COVID-19, many business leaders will be put to the test as their businesses have had to stop, reassess, pivot, and restart parts of or all of their operations in a flash. What are some characteristics of strong leadership during COVID-19?

HR Answer:

During a crisis, leadership characteristics and values are really put to the test. In the last two months, leaders have been thrust into a challenging and unprecedented landscape that is difficult to navigate – even for the best. And it won’t stop now. The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially chaotic due to the quick decision making and response times required to overcome unfamiliar obstacles while meeting the needs of employees, customers, partners/vendors, and more. These are unchartered waters. There is no playbook. We’re learning and innovating as we go. So, what does it take to be a successful captain?

There are many characteristics that can make a strong leader, but there are five in particular that can set managers and executives up for success. By activating the below strengths in your work and daily life, leaders can help their teams and their companies navigate these choppy waters.

Characteristics of Leadership During COVID-19

Agility and Adaptability: The willingness and ability to change quickly and easily. To be able to shift to new or different ways of thinking. If there is one skill set that we all have had to rely on the most during this time, it is this one. By remaining agile and flexible as new challenges come about, leaders have been and will be able to see creative, innovative, and potentially unexplored solutions to meet the opportunity head-on. Which leads to the next characteristic…

Creativity: The ability to invite and be open to the perspectives and viewpoints of others to solve a problem or bring a vision to fruition by asking questions.  Many of the problems or challenges that leaders are facing at this time are challenges because we, as a business society, have not had to face them before. Employees have not had to create DIY workspaces within 24 hours’ notice. IT departments have not had to ensure the cyber safety of an entire department or company while turning on a dime. And leaders have not had to quickly learn how to lead a remote team, manage productivity, and still ensure deliverables are completed while trying to balance a nose-diving economy. The need for creativity and the ability to see other viewpoints allows leaders to create a landscape that is manageable for both themselves and their employees.

Visionary: Seeing and planning a future state using the data at hand and forecasting possibilities. Sharing the vision with others and inspiring action toward it.

Bravery: Facing the challenge or difficulty head-on. Speaking up for what is right during opposition and is not afraid to admit when they don’t know the answer. To say that this pandemic has required a certain amount of bravery would be an understatement. Many leaders have found themselves needing to make difficult, potentially unpopular decisions to ensure the survival of their business and the safety of their team. Those decisions require a sense of bravery, as leaders often open themselves up for further criticism. Maintaining a brave face (even if you don’t always feel that way) can instill the necessary confidence in your team to keep moving.

Humor: Bring on the fun! The ability to bring laughter and light-heartedness to a situation is important. As anxiety and stress are heightened for most (if not all) employees at this time, the ability to appropriately infuse humor into a tense situation can be integral to keeping a team moving forward.

While these characteristics might be behaviors you bring to the table, it’s important to discern whether they are top strengths that you easily and consistently apply, or if you only use them once in a while. In times of stress, this answer becomes evident based upon your reactions. Were you, as a leader, able to remain creative and explore new solutions? Are you able to maintain bravery, even when many future events are uncertain?

Consider using this time for self-reflection awareness and determine development opportunities to further engage your top strengths. Ask yourself, “How will this crisis make me better?” and “How can I best help others during this time?” as a guide. Be a model of self-care and self-awareness for your team members, so the entire team can be resilient through the storm you’re navigating together. Additionally, invest in developing these strengths and values over time to optimize your effectiveness. This challenge, unique and unprecedented as it may be, can help you continue to mold and practice many of the characteristics that you will need to succeed.

And as with any self-awareness and development activity, it’s important to get feedback from the team on how you and the rest of the team are doing in applying these strengths. Designing and conducting a quick survey will help gather these insights. Additionally, Gallup created this quick audit to help leaders determine if their leadership approach through COVID-19 is meeting the needs of their team members.  An HR Professional or Leadership Coach can help with the execution of an assessment, survey, and development plan specifics to support your growth in leadership effectiveness through COVID-19. Ensure the captain(s) are taken care of during this time to effectively steer the ship into the “new land of opportunity.”

 

Executive/Leadership development will impact the bottom line for your business. It’s more important than ever to optimize your operations during the pandemic. strategic HR, inc. can help with your leadership and HR strategy through COVID-19. For more information, please visit our HR Strategy and Training & Development pages, or simply contact us – we’d love to hear from you.

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What are the Reopening Plans for the Tri-state?

HR Question

Each state is putting out its own reopening plan for businesses amid COVID-19. What are the state reopening plans for our tri-state area of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana?

HR Answer

This is the question on everyone’s mind! As many states are beginning to consider their reopening protocols, it can be tough to keep track of the updates and new information. We’ve compiled a list of the most recent state reopening plans for Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana below. 

Not in Ohio, Kentucky, or Indiana? Check out this USA Today article, which outlines a brief summary of each state’s most recent updates.

 

Ohio’s State Reopening Plan: Responsible Restart Ohio

On Monday, April 27, Governor Mike DeWine announced his plan to “responsibly restart Ohio” through a staggered approach. While many businesses may begin the process of reopening their doors on a staggered-restart schedule outlined below, there are still several safety regulations to consider prior to reopening. 

Through Ohio’s Safe Business Practices for Getting Back to Work, any business that wants to reopen must:

  • Recommend use of face coverings for employees (it is not mandated, but rather strongly recommended, for clients/customers)
  • Conduct daily health assessments by employers and employees (self-evaluation) to determine if “fit for duty” 
  • Maintain good hygiene at all times – hand washing/sanitizing and social distancing
  • Clean and sanitize workplaces throughout the workday and at the close of business or between shifts 
  • Limit capacity to meet social distancing guidelines, which includes:
    • Establishing maximum capacity at 50% of fire code
    • Using appointment setting where possible to limit congestion

Provided that businesses follow these guidelines, they can begin to follow the Responsible Restart Ohio schedule. All industries are required to meet mandatory requirements such as: 

  • Ensuring a minimum of 6 feet between people and installing barriers for when that is not possible 
  • Working from home if at all possible 
  • All employees must perform daily symptom assessments (monitoring for fever, cough, shortness of breath), and must stay home if symptomatic.
  • Staggering or limiting the arrivals of employees and guests

Should you not find your industry below, the Ohio Department of Health has updated its list of Continued Business Closures, as well.

On May 1:

The healthcare sector will be one of the first to reopen. All healthcare procedures (that do not require an overnight stay in a hospital) may move forward, including dentists and veterinarians

On May 4: 

Manufacturing, distribution, and construction industries may begin to reopen. They are expected to follow the above required regulations but are also recommended to provide stipends to employees for private transportation. For further information on how to adjust the shift patterns, physical spaces, and workstations, refer to the guidelines for manufacturing, distribution, and construction industries.

General office environments may also begin to reopen, provided they follow the mandatory guidelines above. Additional mandatory requirements for these environments include: 

  • Reducing the sharing of work materials
  • Limiting travel as much as possible
  • Post signage on health safety guidelines in common areas

Other recommended Best Practices include: 

  • Ensure seating distance of 6 ft. or more
  • Enable natural workplace ventilation
  • Health questionnaire for symptoms at entry
  • Temperature taking protocol

For further information, refer to the guidelines for general office environments.

On May 12: 

Consumer, retail, and services companies may begin to reopen to the public. They are required to meet the same mandatory guidelines as other industries, and in addition, they must:

  • Place hand sanitizers in high-contact locations
  • Clean high-touch items, such as carts and baskets, after each use  

The Ohio Department of Health also recommends grouping employees by shift to reduce exposure. Further requirements for guests and customers, as well as physical spaces, can be found on the guidance for consumer, retail, and other services page.

Moving Forward:

Should COVID-19 be detected in any of these workplaces, the Ohio Department of Health has stated the following: 

  • Mandatory Actions: 
    • Immediately isolate and seek medical care for any individual who develops symptoms while at work
    • Contact the Local Health District about suspected cases or exposures
    • Shut down shop/floor for deep sanitation if possible
  • Recommended Best Practices
    • Work with your local health department to identify potentially infected or exposed individuals to help facilitate effective contact tracing/notifications
    • Once testing is readily available, test all suspected infections or exposures
    • Following testing, contact your local health department to initiate appropriate care and tracing

 

Kentucky’s State Reopening Plan: “Healthy at Work” Program

Governor Andy Beshear created “Healthy at Work” – a phased approach to reopen Kentucky’s economy. Based on criteria set by public health experts and advice from industry experts, “Healthy at Work” is a phased approach to returning to “normal.” Phase 1 is a state-readiness evaluation while Phase 2 is a business-readiness evaluation. 

There are ten rules to reopening a business under the “Healthy at Work” plan, which include:

  • Continued telework where possible
  • Phased return to work
  • Onsite temperature/health checks
  • Universal masks and other necessary PPE
  • Closed common areas
  • Enforced social distancing
  • Limited face-to-face meetings
  • Sanitizer/hand wash stations
  • Special accommodations
  • Established testing plan

Phase 1: Beginning Monday, April 27 

During Phase 1 of Healthy at Work, the Governor will determine whether Kentucky has met certain public health benchmarks for reopening Kentucky’s economy. These benchmarks are based on the White House’s Guidelines for Reopening America

Any non-urgent/emergent healthcare services, diagnostic radiology, and lab services were allowed to reopen in the healthcare facilities, such as clinics, hospital outpatient settings, medical offices, and the following:

  • Physical therapy settings
  • Chiropractic offices
  • Optometrists
  • Dental offices (but with enhanced aerosol protections)

While this guidance does not apply to long-term care settings, prisons, other industries, or other settings, separate guidance has already been provided or will be provided in the future.

Phase 2

In Phase 2, economic sectors and individual businesses will be evaluated on their ability to safely reopen. From there, the Governor will gradually begin authorizing certain business sectors to reopen while still maintaining appropriate health and safety measures. Industry groups, trade associations, and individual businesses that are closed due to COVID-19 are encouraged to submit reopen proposals on their behalf and on the behalf of their members to discuss possible strategies and challenges their business or sector will face in safely reopening. 

Individual businesses may submit via the online reopen form. All proposals will be evaluated according to White House guidelines and other public health criteria. 

No business or business association is required to submit such a proposal in order to reopen. Once a sector of business is reopened, all of those businesses will be reopened regardless of if they submitted a proposal, provided that they implement all the necessary health and safety measures recommended.

Note: Businesses that are currently open do not need to submit proposals to remain open, but must comply with new standards set for their industries. Closed businesses or associations representing them are encouraged, but not required, to submit reopen proposals.

If you have questions, email them to HealthyAtWork@ky.gov.

Reopening the Healthcare Economy

The Kentucky Department of Public Health also released its multi-phase plan for reopening the healthcare economy. The four phase plan includes the following:

  • Phase 1: Beginning Monday, April 27, all non-emergent/non-urgent outpatient healthcare services (including diagnostic radiology, laboratory services, physical therapy, chiropractic, dentistry, oral surgery, and more) can resume.
  • Phase 2: Beginning Wednesday, May 6, outpatient/ambulatory surgery and invasive procedures may resume (with COVID-19 pre-procedure testing). All facilities must have a 14 day supply of all necessary PPE.
  • Phase 3: Beginning Wednesday, May 13, non-emergent/non-urgent inpatient surgery and procedures may resume at 50% of pre-COVID-19 shutdown. All facilities must have a 14 day supply of all necessary PPE.
  • Phase 4: Beginning Wednesday, May 27, non-emergent/non-urgent inpatient surgery and procedures may resume at a volume to be determined by individual facilities. All facilities must have a 14 day supply of all necessary PPE.

Testing Sites and Eligibility

In addition to some health care facilities, Kentuckians can now be tested free of charge for COVID-19 at many sites across the commonwealth including Kroger, Walgreens, and college and high school locations. For more information on drive-through testing visit kycovid19.ky.gov

Unemployment insurance Update

In his announcement on April 27th, Governor Beshear said those who applied for unemployment in March should expect to hear from somebody this week. As claims have reached a peak greater than any time in our history, many individuals are working hard to respond to the claims. In two weeks, the state has gone from receiving and responding to 1,200 calls per day to over 50,000 per day. As of April 27, the current staff working on unemployment claims totaled: 

  • 1,000 people answering phones and working on claims
  • 15 people addressing the backlog of unpaid claims
  • 250 people working on adjudication, appeals, e-claims, etc.
  • 200 people working on Tier 2 and 3
  • Over 20 staffers from three different Cabinets and the Governor’s Office are helping

 

Indiana – “Be Well Indiana” and Other Resources

On April 24, 2020, the Indiana government released Guidance for Employers During the COVID-19 Response. At this time, there has been no further guidance regarding Indiana’s state reopening plan. 

On Monday, April 27, Indiana released a few resources and initiatives, the first being the Be Well Indiana” resource. This site was created to help support mental health issues caused by the COVID-19 crisis. 

The second being the SNAP-Pandemic Initiative, which was created to support children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Finally, Indiana launched a map of  COVID-19 testing sites located throughout the state.  These sites were released on 4/27/20.

 

During these uncertain times, be sure to check out our Employer’s Resource Guide to the Coronavirus which is updated regularly to help you navigate your business through the challenges you are facing. Still have questions? Contact us – our HR experts are here to help!

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How Can I Maintain My Team’s Productivity During COVID-19?

HR Question:

I manage a team who are all now working remotely and struggling to maintain productivity during COVID-19. Our workloads have obviously shifted, and many of my team members have reported feeling like they’re struggling to move forward with their tasks. How can I keep everyone motivated long enough to cross the finish line of returning back to work as we knew it?

HR Answer:

No one really knows when we will return to business “somewhat-as-usual,” and between the constant updates and changes, it can be difficult to maintain a team’s productivity during COVID-19. While we’re all struggling to remain focused during these uncertain times, we’ll share a few ways to motivate, encourage, and even increase productivity while your team is working from home.

Invest in Your Employees

First and foremost, your responsibility as a manager is to ensure that you are staying connected with your employees on a regular basis. To say that your employees, along with yourself, have been shocked by COVID-19 is an understatement. Many team members are concerned about their health and the health of their families, financial uncertainty, and fears of job loss. It can easily pull anyone off the road of productivity and into a world of worry. Now is the time to talk to team members about questions, concerns, and assumptions. Make sure that you’re checking in on them and that they understand that their manager is here to listen, should they need it.

In addition to the importance of you staying connected with your employees, it is also critical that they stay connected with one another. Particularly for teams who were used to working together and seeing one another on a regular basis, they’re accustomed to having quick and easy ways to collaborate with one another. Now that teams are working remotely, it may require a bit of extra effort to make sure that they stay connected and can still have the same efficiencies that they had when working in the same environment. So, encourage your team to use all of the resources they have at their disposal to host virtual meetings and to stay connected with one another.

If you’re struggling to find enough tasks for your team to do (or even struggling with new tasks that your team has not tackled before), a potential solution is to augment their skills through a plethora of learning, training and mentoring opportunities. Provide options for employees to learn a new skill, attend virtual meetings, or complete online training.

To keep your team moving forward on already-established tasks, set short-term goals with each employee and the team as a whole to help maintain productivity during COVID-19. Also, celebrate when milestones are reached – any milestone. Not only does this help move your team and the company forward as a whole, it creates a sense of achievement that is necessary to motivate team members, particularly in a time when frustration or uncertainty can be overwhelming. Thank employees for staying focused in the midst of the toughest of times.

Internal Reflection

Consider using this time to look internally to find projects that you and your team haven’t had the time for, or services that you have been meaning to enhance further. Ask “what have we needed to change?” In an article for Inc. Magazine, Mark Cuban encouraged small business owners and leaders to use this time to check off the “things they wish they could re-do. Now is the time to make those changes.” Ask employees to use this time to work on process improvements within the business to make the business even better when the pace begins to pick up.

Or, should that list of “to-do’s” be shorter than you would like, perhaps it is time to infuse a little creativity! There is the possibility of customers slowly trickling in when your doors re-open. Get your team engaged by brainstorming ways to offer products or services virtually. Do they see any ways that you could diversify your offerings? Get them involved thinking of ways to address customers’ needs during and after this altered business environment. This is a fantastic way to increase further investment in your employees, as it allows them the opportunity to speak their minds, test their creativity, while indicating that their ideas are valuable.

Crossing the Finish Line

We can all agree the “normal” we knew just a month ago will look very different than the “normal” we will find on the horizon. Many of our team members will encounter new anxieties as we begin to introduce the possibility of returning to working in-person. To help them maintain productivity during COVID-19 and beyond, consider what information your team needs to know to reduce anxiety and improve focus.

Make sure that you have clearly communicated your company’s plans. Answer questions like “what measures are the company taking to make sure we’re safe,” “how will we make sure everyone is healthy,” and “what will the workplace look like when this is over?” By laying some fears and concerns to rest, it allows your team to turn their focus to what necessary actions they need to take to continue remaining productive.

In the end, keeping your employees engaged, invested, and in the loop can increase your team’s productivity while getting through the COVID-19 crisis.

During these uncertain times, be sure to check out our Employer’s Resource Guide to the Coronavirus to help you navigate your business through the challenges you are facing. Still have questions? Contact us– we’re here to help.

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How Can I Protect Employee Privacy During COVID-19?

HR Question:

It seems like everyone is talking about the coronavirus – particularly who’s got it and who doesn’t.  As our company’s HR Manager, how can I protect employee privacy concerns during COVID-19?

HR Answer:

Protecting employee privacy during COVID-19 has become a challenge given the rapid spread of information (and disinformation) in this pandemic. The rumor mill may seem like it’s running rampant with the general population talking about concerns before managers or HR can get involved. Part of the barrier that many HR teams and managers are running into is that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits an employer from inquiring about an employee’s health condition. This means that HR and managers need to approach potential COVID-19 situations with extreme caution. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) has provided helpful guidance on this and many other FAQ’s related to the coronavirus.

Keep It Confidential

While an employer is not a covered entity under HIPAA, it’s important to remember that any health or medical information needs to be held in privacy.  If someone brings symptoms to a manager’s attention, that employee should be referred to Human Resources.  Managers should refrain from asking specifics like “what are your symptoms,” “have you been tested,” “when did you go to the doctor,” etc.  While the impulse may be to ask further medical questions, medical information should be handled by HR, just as they would any FMLA or ADA claim. An employee may bring something to their manager’s attention, but any information the manager receives should be on a need-to-know basis (e.g., will the employee miss work, any restrictions, etc.)

From an HR perspective, what should you do when an employee makes it known that they have been diagnosed, have symptoms as identified by the CDC, or have been exposed to COVID-19? It’s a tricky situation.

Initial Response

First and foremost, express sympathy and support. The employee may be just as scared, if not more so, than the rest of the team. Continue to focus on the facts, such as asking the employee who they may have come in contact with in the past 14 days. Keep in mind, there are still privacy concerns.

Stop the Spread

Secondly, the employee needs to take action to protect those they interact with often. It’s imperative that the employee remain away from the workplace until they have been symptom-free for 72 hours and at least 7 days have passed since the symptoms first appeared. Additionally, should testing be available in the area, two negative test results are also required. For more information, see the CDC guidance on discontinuing isolation for those who have been infected.

Purposeful & Planned Communication Approach

Thirdly, consider any communication that needs to be published – weigh who needs to know and what should be shared.  Those the employee may have come in contact with need to know they may have been exposed.  The answer to who needs to know will also depend on the size of your organization and proximity in the work environment.  If you are a small company where everyone works in an open space, you may need to communicate with the whole team.  If the employee in question works in a department at the other end of the building, with minimal interaction with other departments, that communication can be narrower in focus.

Given privacy concerns around COVID-19 (or any health-related information), it is not appropriate to disclose the name of the employee.  The message should be along the lines of, “The company has been made aware that an employee either has symptoms of, has been exposed to, or has tested positive for COVID-19.  We wanted to make you aware of this so you can take appropriate steps for your own health and safety.”

If you are made aware that employees are talking about someone’s medical condition (even if it’s their own), a gentle reminder of privacy would be appropriate.

In these difficult times, it’s essential to find the right balance of empathy and sharing information without causing panic. Approaching privacy concerns around COVID-19 with the same tact and confidentiality one would approach an FMLA or ADA concern is the best course of action. At the same time, you can be a steady and calm resource for those who need it.

 

During these uncertain times, be sure to check out our Employer’s Resource Guide to the Coronavirus to help you navigate your business through the challenges you are facing. Still have questions? Contact us – we’re here to help!

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How to Conduct Safe Interviews Amid COVID-19

HR Question:

If I am an essential business that needs to continue hiring new staff during this time of the COVID-19 outbreak, how do I conduct safe and effective interviews?

HR Answer:

Now that the Stay-at-Home order has officially gone into effect across the region, virtual interactions are being added as necessary steps in lieu of and prior to inviting a candidate to an in-person job interview.  At this time, it is important to limit the need for a candidate to be on-site for an in-person interview.  Below are recommendations on conducting virtual interviews and best practices to follow when it is necessary to have the candidate on-site.

Conducting Virtual Interviews During COVID-19

1. Phone Interviews

If it is not already normal practice for you to conduct phone interviews as an initial step to qualify candidates prior to bringing them in for an interview, now is the time to start!  The phone interview can be used to qualify candidates for a high-level fit for experience, pay expectations, availability for specific work schedules, and location.

2. Virtual Video Interviews

If you do not have the capacity to conduct a high volume of phone interviews, an effective and efficient option can be to conduct virtual (one-way) video interviews.  Virtual interview platforms allow you to screen candidates 24/7.  As an added bonus, candidates can complete the interviews at their convenience.  You simply choose the questions you want candidates to address, send out an interview invitation, and watch candidates’ recorded responses. For example, we use Outmatch, an on-demand and live video provider.

3. Live Video Interviews

After qualifying a candidate through either a phone or virtual on-demand interview, the next step could be to coordinate a live video interview.  There are several video conference platforms available, including Outmatch that we mentioned above. However, you can also consider using video platforms that may already be in use by your organization such as Skype, Amazon Chime, Zoom, BlueJeans, Google Hangouts, Facetime, etc.  This is a great way to include decision-makers in your organization who are working remotely and still allows you to engage with the candidate at a high level. Choose the platform that works best for you, keeping in mind that there are differences, including some that record the interview and can work seamlessly with your ATS.

Preparing for Live Video Interviews

Preparing Interviewers:

Although there are some differences in the steps to preparing for video interviews, good basic interviewing prep still applies. For example, all interviewers should still review the job description and candidate resume, have prepared interview questions, and follow a shared agenda for the interview. What’s different is the need to make sure that all interviewers have access to your video platform. They should also conduct the interview in a quiet, well-lit room where they can be seen and heard easily. We recommend testing this prior to the interview to ensure their cameras and microphones function well.

Preparing Candidates:

Prior to the interview, you should communicate with candidates to let them know you will be conducting a video interview and explain how they will access the video platform. You should ensure that they have access to a device that is compatible with your platform, and ideally, provide them an opportunity to test it out before the interview. Offer the same suggestions that you shared with your interviewers to find a quiet, well-lit room for the video and test their camera and microphone. Also, set the stage for what to expect in the interview, including start time, expected length, and provide a list of the interviewers and job titles. Be sure to allow candidates to ask questions in advance of the interview to alleviate any concerns that they have as this may be new to them.   

Conducting Safe On-site Interviews Amid COVID-19

When you have virtually vetted candidates as much as possible down to only those that are highly qualified, we recognize that it still may be necessary to invite candidates to an on-site interview.

Below are best, safe practices to ensure the safety of the candidate and interviewer(s) involved:

Set Clear Expectations

Be sure to clearly set expectations and provide specific day-of-interview instructions for candidates (and interviewers) before the on-site interview. These instructions should include:

  • Where to park. Have spaces identified specifically for visitors to use.
  • Where to enter the building. If possible, identify a specific entrance to be used only for visitors.
  • Instructions on who to call and reschedule if they are not feeling well. Refer to CDC’s list of symptoms of the coronavirus.

Maintain Social Distancing

Adhere to all social distancing guidelines as outlined by the CDC and your corresponding state and local government. Some suggestions include:

  • Avoid close contact. Ensure that you have an interview space where you can maintain at least 6 feet of separation between each person involved.
  • Wash your hands properly, and have hand sanitizer available. Although this likely breaks with your normal protocol, do not shake hands. Explain that in order to maintain social distancing, everyone will avoid shaking hands. To lighten the mood, consider coming up with a fun alternative (“air high-5”, “air fist pump”, etc.)
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, desks, phones, keyboards, etc.

Health Screen Prior to Interview

On the day of the interview, yet well in advance of its intended start time and expected arrival of the participants, call all participants (candidates and interviewers) to screen for potentially contaminated individuals by asking these questions:

  • Have you recently traveled to an area with known local spread of Covid-19?
  • Have you come into close contact (within 6 feet) with someone who has a laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 diagnosis in the last 14 days?
  • Are you experiencing any of the COVID-19 symptoms identified by the CDC?
  • If they answer affirmatively to any of the above, then the interview should be postponed.

Health Screen On-site

Put in place a process to check the temperature of candidates and interviewers when they arrive.

  • Postpone the interview immediately if the candidate’s temperature is 100 degrees or higher.
  • If you only have a single interviewer and they have a fever, you will need to postpone the interview. If you have multiple interviewers, and one registers a fever, determine whether the interview can proceed without them.

Postpone When Sick

Hopefully, it goes without saying that you will need to postpone the interview if the candidate or any essential interviewers are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19. Given the severity of this pandemic, this is not a moment to take any unnecessary risks.

We recognize that it is very challenging to conduct efficient and effective interviews for those in-demand essential positions that are needed to continue during this crisis.  Hopefully, these tips and best practices will help you to still successfully identify and hire the best candidates to meet your hiring needs.

 

If you need assistance in implementing any of these safe interviewing strategies, or if you need help finding qualified individuals that fit your culture and have the skills that you need, Contact Us

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What Unemployment Benefits Are My Employees Eligible for Given the Changes Due to the Coronavirus?

HR Question:

What unemployment benefits are my employees eligible for given the changes due to the  coronavirus?

HR Answer:

As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak continues to evolve, businesses are evaluating how to continue operations amidst a myriad of challenges. Strategies such as implementing telecommuting programs, enforcing fully remote workspaces, eliminating business travel and limiting visitors are all efforts to protect employees and limit the spread of the virus while still conducting business.  However, some employers are facing significant financial hardships causing them to reduce work hours, eliminate shifts, or permanently lay-off workers to ease their financial burdens.  In light of these challenging times, it’s important to know what benefits may be available through unemployment benefits.

State of Ohio – Unemployment Benefits Overview

Eligibility for Unemployment Benefits

According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS), to qualify for unemployment benefits, the following four key factors must be met:

  • You are “totally” or “partially” unemployed at the time you file your application.
    • Totally Unemployed – You performed no services for your employer, and no earnings or income are payable to you during the week you apply for benefits.
    • Partially Unemployed – Your employer let you go before the end of your usual work week, or reduced your work hours to less than your full-time work week AND you earn less than the unemployment weekly benefit amount.
  • You worked enough weeks and earned enough money in “covered” employment during the “base period” of your claim.
  • You are unemployed through no fault of your own.
  • If you had a prior benefit account, you reestablished yourself as a worker by performing enough work since the prior account began.

Minimum Number of Weeks

You must have worked at least 20 weeks in covered employment during the base period. If you worked for more than one covered employer during the base period, you may still be eligible.

Minimum Earnings

If an application is filed in 2020, you must have an average weekly wage (before taxes or other deductions) of at least $269.00 during the base period.

Filing Requirements

Claimants must file for a week of unemployment benefits no later than three weeks (21 days) after the Sunday date of the week being claimed. Claims for benefits filed beyond this time limit will be disallowed unless you can establish that the late filing was for reasons beyond your control.

Coronavirus – State of Ohio Emergency Declaration

An executive order issued by Governor DeWine expands flexibility for Ohioans to receive unemployment benefits during Ohio’s emergency declaration period.

Temporary Shut-Down of Business

The emergency declaration expands flexibility for employees to receive unemployment benefits should the COVID-19 result in a temporary shut-down of an employer’s business. Additionally, benefits will be available for eligible individuals who are requested by a medical professional, local health authority, or employer to be isolated or quarantined as a consequence of COVID-19, even if they are not actually diagnosed with COVID-19. In addition, the waiting period for eligible Ohioans to receive unemployment benefits (generally one week) will be waived.

Reduced Work Schedules/Partial Unemployment

If COVID-19 results in a reduced work schedule to less than your full-time work week AND you earn less than the unemployment weekly benefit amount, you may be eligible for benefits.  All income including payments other than wages (severance pay, vacation pay, workers compensation, among others) would be deducted from the weekly unemployment benefit.

Permanent Layoff

If an employer lays off employees due to the loss of production caused by the coronavirus, employees will be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits if the employees are otherwise eligible. An executive order issued by Governor DeWine expands flexibility for Ohioans to receive unemployment benefits during Ohio’s emergency declaration period.

Employees Facing Mandatory Quarantines

If an employee is in mandatory quarantine because of suspicion of having the coronavirus, the executive order issued by Governor Dewine states that employees who are quarantined are considered to be unemployed, and therefore may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits.

Employee Imposes a Self-Quarantine

If an asymptomatic employee imposes a self-quarantine because of the coronavirus, in most cases they will be ineligible for unemployment benefits.  Unemployment benefits are available to individuals who are totally or partially unemployed due to no fault of their own. In this example, the individual – not the employer – is choosing not to work and, therefore, would be ineligible. However, the facts of each circumstance are important. If the employer allowed this individual to telework, they would not qualify for benefits because they would not be unemployed. If the employer required the individual to stay home but did not offer telework, the individual might be eligible for benefits if they meet the monetary and weekly eligibility criteria.

How to Apply

In Ohio according to ODJFS, there are two ways to file an application for Unemployment Insurance Benefits:

  1. Online: File online at http://unemployment.ohio.gov, 24 hours/day, 7 days/week.
  2. Telephone: Call toll-free 1-877-644-6562 or TTY 1-614-387-8408, (excluding holidays) Monday through Friday 8 AM – 5 PM.

NOTE: The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) is instructing Ohio employers planning layoffs or shutdowns as a result the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to share the following mass lay-off number with their employees to speed the processing of unemployment benefits: 2000180. The agency also is providing instructions for employers to share with their employees about how to apply for benefits.

To stay on top of updates to the evolving decisions surrounding unemployment benefits related to COVID-19, visit the ODJFS Coronavirus and Unemployment Insurance Benefits FAQs.

State of Kentucky – Unemployment Benefits

Similar to Ohio, Kentucky provides weekly unemployment benefits ranging from $39 to $552 per week dependent upon a claimant’s past wages.  Governor Andy Beshear is adjusting some of the rules to unemployment benefits in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of emergency he declared on March 6, 2020. Some of the changes include:

  • Waiving the seven-day waiting period to obtain unemployment insurance benefits
  • Waiving work search requirements while the state of emergency is in effect

Employees who have been laid off because of the new coronavirus or whose hours have been cut are also encouraged to apply for benefits. Those quarantined may also be eligible. If approved, the first payment would be for 14 days of benefits, an increase from the usual one week.

Per Kentucky state law, those who qualify for unemployment benefits are not given them for the first week of their eligibility, but Governor Beshear’s order waves that provision according to the Louisville Courier Journal.

To learn more about Kentucky unemployment benefits or to apply, visit the website at www.kcc.ky.gov or call (502) 875-0442.

 

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Coronavirus Absenteeism Pay

Question:

We’re seeing more issues related to the Coronavirus and employee absenteeism. How do we handle pay for salary / exempt employees who are absent from work?

Answer:

There are three scenarios in which you might be concerned with how to handle pay for an exempt employee who is absent from work because of the Coronavirus.

  1. The business is closed due to excessive absenteeism?
    • Pay the employee if the business is closed for less than a week; if the business is closed for a week or more, and if the employee does not work from home that week, arguably the employer does not have to pay the employee.
    • The best and recommended course is to pay the employee.
  2. The employee is sick from the Coronavirus?
    • Typically if an employee is on FMLA leave, you don’t pay them. However, some companies have policies that provide for pay while employees are sick; in such cases, you must follow that policy and pay the employee.
    • For exempt employees, the rule is to pay them if they are sick. However, employers may make deductions for a full day’s absence due to illness if they have a bona fide plan, policy, or practice that provides compensation for loss of salary as a result of sickness or disability.
  3. The employee’s family member is sick and they have to stay home to provide care?
    • If an employee takes FMLA leave, they most likely would not be paid for the time off.
  4. The employee doesn’t want to come to work to avoid getting the coronavirus?
    • While employees cannot use FMLA in order to stay home and avoid getting ill, it is a good idea to encourage employees that are ill with the coronavirus or are exposed to ill family members to stay home.
    • Because of the severity of this illness and the far reaching effect it is having, businesses should consider creating flexible leave policies for their employees to cover these circumstances.

Under these unusual circumstances, a virus of pandemic proportion causing significant absenteeism, we recommend that you create a sick leave policy specific to the coronavirus. This enables you to “flex” your typical attendance policies to allow for the unusual amounts of absenteeism that you might not otherwise experience and allows you to spell out how absences will be handled.

Multicolored wheel divided into 7 equal sections Recruitment, Training and Development, Benifits and Compensation, Communicating, Employee Relations, Recordkeeping, and Health safety and security with Legal compliance written on the outer edge and company strategy in the center health safety and security is emphasized

Surgical Mask Use to Prevent Coronavirus

Question:

Should I require my employees to wear a surgical mask to protect themselves from the recent coronavirus outbreak?

Answer:

The decision to require surgical masks in the workplace would depend upon an analysis of the work environment.  OSHA categorizes and defines employee risk of coronavirus exposure at work into four categories – very high, high, medium, and lower risk.  The level of risk depends on their potential exposure (typically repeated exposure) to those infected with the virus.  The designations are as follows:

  • Very high risk occupations are those with high exposure to known or suspected sources of the virus such as healthcare employees performing “aerosol-generating” procedures on known or suspected pandemic flu patients or laboratory employees handling specimens of known or suspected patients.
  • High exposure risk occupations are those with a high potential for exposure to known or suspected sources of the virus.  These include healthcare employees and support staff (outside of those defined as very high risk), morgue and mortuary employees,
  • Medium exposure risk occupations are those that have frequent, close contact (defined as 6 feel) with known or suspected sources.  This would include employees in schools as an example or high volume retail.
  • Lower exposure risk occupations are those that do not require contact with people known to be infected nor frequent, close contact with the public.  Office employees with limited contact with the general public or other coworkers would be in this category.

An analysis of the risk associated in the workplace is essential in determining appropriateness.  In many instances those in very high and high exposure occupations would be better protected through the use of a respirator, not a surgical mask.

For the other levels of occupations, education is key.  The most important thing to know is what surgical masks can and cannot do.  Surgical masks (those approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) are used as a physical barrier to protect employees from hazards, such as body fluids, by trapping the body fluid that may contain the virus when they are expelled.  The most important benefit for a mask is to prevent accidental contamination through the limitation of exposure to secretions and body fluids (blood, saliva, mucus, etc.)  Surgical masks are not made to prevent the inhalation of small airborne contaminants.  Surgical masks don’t seal tightly, which leaves gaps and thus loses any filtration it may provide to keep out airborne particles.

According to OSHA, there is very limited information on the value of surgical masks to prevent the spread of the virus when there is no known source of infection.  So the question remains, is the cost worth it?  The bottom line – educate your employees on good hygiene practices; these are truly your best defense in the workplace to reduce the spread of infection.  Frequent hand washing, proper sneezing, and cleaning/disinfecting of work surfaces will provide many of the necessary protections in the workplace.  Of course, if there is someone infected in the workplace keep in mind that surgical masks would be only one small step (with questionable value) in protection.  Isolation and social distancing is a more effective control strategy in the workplace and should be enforced to eliminate occupational exposure.