Things to Remember when Employees Return to their Workplace

Returning employees to work during and after the COVID-19 pandemic will be more difficult than just declaring a reopening or return-to-work date and continuing business as usual. Many workplaces will not only be affected at first, but some of the changes may be permanent as vaccines become more readily available.

For many people, the COVID-19 outbreak is extremely challenging, drastically changing their daily lives. All members of society, including employers and employees, should take steps to protect themselves and the others and help prevent the disease from spreading further.

Employees

The details of each employer’s return plan will vary, but there are 10 main problems that everyone should be aware of and start preparing for now.

1. Workplace Safety 

Employers are responsible for making their workplaces as safe as possible. Employees and consumers alike may be afraid about returning to normal operations; preparing and communicating how safety is a top concern can soothe fears and build brand loyalty.

The following are some examples of safety measures:

  • Implementing health-screening protocols for employees.
  • Creating an exposure-response strategy that includes:
    • Procedures for isolation, containment, and contact tracking
    • Requirements for stay-at-home.
    • Employees who are affected should be informed.
  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as:
    • Personal hand sanitizer.
    • Masks, gloves, face shields, etc.
  • Detailing cleaning processes and obtaining materials on a regular basis.
  • Implementing a vaccination strategy for the workforce that includes:
    • Surveying employees to see if they want to get the vaccine.
    • Developing a vaccination policy that is either optional or required.
    • Managing requests for religious or medical accommodations.
    • Keeping staff informed about the vaccine.
  • Establishing physical distance in the workplace:
    • Shifts are staggered, and there are lunch and rest breaks.
    • Working remotely and rotating weeks in the office.
    • Increasing separation distance by moving workstations.
    • Using one-way traffic patterns in the workplace.
  • Business travel restrictions:
    • Begin with only essential travel and clarify what that entails.
    • Follow official guidelines to gradually reduce limitations.
  • Defining contact protocols for customers and/or visitors, such as:
    • Customer traffic is being directed through the workplace.
    • Limiting the quantity of clients in a particular location at any given moment.
    • No handshake greetings, and keep a distance of 6 feet between you and the other person.
    • Instead of meeting with clients in person, use video or telephone conferencing.
    • Providing contactless goods pickup and delivery.
  • Understanding and adhering to the record-keeping and reporting requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA):
    • Identify any jobs that could expose you to the coronavirus at work, if any exist.
    • Examine OSHA regulation 29 CFR 1904 to see if diseases are work-related.

2. Recall Procedures

To build an ordered and regulated strategy, plan how and when employees will return to work or to the worksite. It could be overwhelming and unsafe for all employees to return on the same day at the same time.

Things to consider include:

  • Employees who are phasing back into work:
    • Select people based on seniority or other non-discriminatory criteria.
    • If bringing staff back on a reduced schedule, consider implementing a work share program or a SUB plan.
    • Determine schedule alterations that will offer workers with the most protection.
  • Developing a plan for employees who are at high risk of infection to return to work:
    • Allow them to work from home or take a leave of absence until they are ready to return.
    • Determine additional methods to protect them when working onsite, such as segregated workstations, additional PPE as requested, and less days in the office, and so on.
  • Notifying the state’s unemployment office about employees who have been called back to work. This is a legal requirement in the state, and it will help those who choose not to return to work save money on unemployment taxes.
  • Choosing a strategy for dealing with employees who are unable or unwilling to return to work.
    • Employees that are hesitant to return to work.
    • Employees having family responsibilities that prevent them from returning to work.
    • Employees that have been quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure.

3. Employee Benefits Employees

Whether or not employees continued to participate in the employer’s benefits plans, some notices or activities may be necessary to remain compliant. Employees should be informed as soon as possible about these changes.

Consider the following points:

  • Group health insurance
    • Eligibility — Resolve any waiting-period concerns that have arisen as a result of leave or reinstatement; assess any revised eligibility requirements during the the layoff or furlough, and determine if and when those modifications will be revoked.
    • Ensure that coverage changes have been included into the plan, such as the addition of telehealth benefits and services that are no longer subject to deductibles.
    • Determine how or whether the employer will recover those costs from employees if premiums were paid while the employee was on leave.
  • Flexible spending accounts
    • Ensure that employees’ new or altered Dependent Care Assistance Program elections are correct by reviewing them with them.
    • Over-the-counter medical products are now authorized on a permanent basis under flexible medical accounts and should be mentioned in plan documents and communications.
    • Employees should be informed about new flexible spending account options and adjustments that are permissible.
  • 401(k) or other pension plans
    • Review any eligibility difficulties that may have arisen as a result of a layoff or furlough.
    • Take into account any service interruptions or years of service worries.
    • Review any in-service loans that employees may have or want to take, as well as their eligibility and repayment methods.
    • Become familiar with new IRS instructions on hardship withdrawals for COVID-19-affected employees.
  • Paid leave
    • Review any mandatory leave mandated by state or local regulations and ensure that employees are aware of the eligibility requirements.
    • Determine whether the company’s PTO policy will change, such as increasing or decreasing paid leave benefits or imposing further restrictions on the use of paid time off.
    • Understand how leave benefits are coordinated and explain them to employees as needed.

4. Compensation

Many employers may have made compensation adjustments during the crisis, and others may be required to do so in order to reopen. The impact of the disruption on future pay plans will also need to be reviewed and communicated to affected employees.

Things to address include:

  • How the employer will handle any missed yearly salary raises and whether they will be retroactively applied.
  • Will there be any wage cutbacks or rescissions? If required, learn how to lower exempt staff wages.
  • Determine whether or not employee status adjustments (exempt to nonexempt or full-time to part-time) are required to reopen or if those already in place will be maintained.
  • How would bonuses be affected, such as qualifying for or continuation of bonuses, and so on?
  • Is hazard pay going to be offered or taken away?
  • As workers return to work, it may be a good opportunity to perform a pay equity audit, as pay may have been lowered or frozen, affecting women differently.

5. Remote Work

Some employers and employees may have found telecommuting to be effective during the pandemic. It should be considered not only as a short-term emergency tool, but also as a long-term work/life balance and cost-cutting approach.

Actions to consider include:

  • To keep employees safe, continue to offer remote work where possible.
  • Part-time remote work on alternating weekdays or staggered weeks in the office and at home for team members.
  • Responding to requests from employees to continue working from home, particularly long-term arrangements.
  • Technology is being updated to support virtual workers.
  • Consider the cost savings or impact of offering permanent remote work in the long run.

6. Communications

Employees and consumers will be able to understand how the company expects to reopen or reestablish business procedures if a clear communication plan is established.

The following topics to cover may include:

  • How to protect workers and consumers by staying at home if unwell and physical distancing policies are in place.
  • Describe the new workplace safety and disinfection protocols that have been introduced, as well as the training that has been provided.
  • Prepare any affected staff and consumers with exposure-response communications.
  • Prepare media communications on issues such as return-to-work schedules, safety measures in place, and other ways the organization is assisting employees and consumers. Prepare to respond to media requests in the event of a workplace incident.

7. New-Hire Paperwork

Employees who stayed on the payroll would not have to fill out any new paperwork when they returned to work and for those who have lost their jobs, such as laid-off workers, it may be appropriate to follow standard hiring procedures.

  • Determine the prerequisites for rehired workers in terms of employment applications and benefits enrolment.
  • Decide if you’ll use full or adjusted orientation processes.
  • Send in new-hire reports for both new and rehired employees.
  • Notify state unemployment agencies about recalled employees, whether or not they were rehired.
  • Address I-9 issues
    • If you’re working remotely, finish in person when you get back to the office.
    • As soon as the employee receives new documents, update any expired work authorization documents or make a note of which ones need to be updated.
    • Determine whether employees will complete Section 3 of their original I-9 form or a new I-9 form.

8. Policy Changes

It’s not business as usual anymore, and employers will almost certainly need to change or adapt rules to reflect this new normal.

The following are some examples:

  • Paid-leave policies have been adjusted to match regulatory obligations as well as current business needs.
  • To encourage sick employees to remain at home, attendance requirements were eased.
  • The processes for requesting time off have been updated to explain when an employer may require time off if sick employees must be sent home.
  • Implemented flexible scheduling options that allow for reduced workweeks and flexible start and stop times.
  • Policies for meal and rest breaks were changed to stagger periods, and methods were established to encourage physical d.
  • Travel policy have been amended to reflect the importance of essential versus non-essential travel, as well as the impact of local and international travel limitations.
  • Detailed telecommuting policies that reflect the types of work that can be done remotely as well as the procedures for requesting telework.
  • Information technology rules have been updated to include hardware, software, and support for remote workers.

9. Business Continuity Plans Employees

During the last few months, employers will have learned a lot about their business continuity plans, or lack thereof. Now is the time to go over the plan again and make any necessary changes in order to be ready for any future emergencies.

  • If a business continuity strategy was not existing prior to the COVID-19 crisis, create one that includes infectious disease control.
  • Modify existing plans to include the most up-to-date emergency information, such as updates on diseases and workplace factors, as well as changes in global disaster response methods.
  • To ensure accuracy, update the plan’s resources and contact information.
  • Create a pandemic task force to monitor external and internal data and apply relevant protocols on a regular basis. Recognize that more closures may be necessary during this pandemic, since COVID-19 infections may rise and fall, causing more stay-at-home orders and supply chain disruptions.
  • Perform tests and exercises to ensure that employees understand the new or revised emergency plans and to identify any missing parts that need to be addressed before another emergency situation arises.

10. Unions

Employers with unionized workforces may need to take into account extra factors, such as:

  • Determine bargaining duties when making changes to mandatory bargaining subjects like salaries and benefits.
  • Identifying the need to include a force majeure clause in a collective bargaining agreement to safeguard the employer from contractual responsibilities in the event of an unforeseen catastrophe.
  • Reviewing existing no-strike restrictions to ensure that future infectious disease outbreaks are not disrupted.
  • During “abnormally unsafe conditions,” determining hazard pay responsibilities under Section 502 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

In general, COVID-19 spread is more likely to occur the closer you engage with people and the longer that interaction lasts.

When you participate in public activities, continue to protect yourself by taking preventative measures on a regular basis.

Keep the following items on hand: a face mask, tissues, and, if possible, a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

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