In short:

  • As states loosen stay-at-home orders and allow certain businesses to reopen, many are struggling to draw up responsible, coordinated plans for bringing employees back to work.
  • Companies need a clear policy that covers workplace cleaning, PPE requirements and social distancing.
  • There are new legal concerns business leaders should understand, especially around sick leave and medical confidentiality.

All 50 states are emerging from coronavirus lockdowns(opens in new tab). Some are moving quickly, others are taking a county-by-county approach. There’s often a patchwork of reopening orders and guidelines, and that can make bringing back employees a challenging proposition. And, a manufacturer, an office building and a retail store can’t follow the same protocols — even within those categories, there are considerations unique to individual businesses.

Fortunately, there are some steps relevant to the majority of companies. We’ll highlight those and call out the latest best practices and some examples for various types of workplaces.

First though, let’s look at liability.

New Legal Realities

There are legal considerations around how to bring workers and customers back safely, says Shahara Wright, a business law attorney and wiseHER expert whose offices, The Wright Firm(opens in new tab), are based in Houston.

“Give serious consideration to continuing with a remote workforce when feasible,” says Wright. Employees who can work effectively from home should be allowed to continue to do so. She also notes that companies may need to adjust their sick leave policies under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act(opens in new tab) (FFCRA), which mandates paid leave for certain COVID-19-related situations.

“The most essential part of the FFCRA is the paid sick leave expansion,” she said. “This specifically applies to businesses with fewer than 500 employees; small businesses with fewer than 50 employees may qualify for an exemption.”

Under FFCRA, employers must offer two weeks, up to 80 hours, of sick leave at the employee's regular rate of pay if the worker is quarantined or seeking a diagnosis, and the same amount of time at two-thirds pay to care for someone under quarantine or caring for a child whose school or care provider is closed due to COVID-19.

Employers should also make it clear to employees that they need to stay home if they don’t feel well or are experiencing any symptoms of the coronavirus — businesses should not require proof of a positive test or a doctor’s note.

Be especially accommodating to older workers and those with preexisting conditions.

Employers that decide to take workers’ temperatures at the start of a shift or ask about their infection or antibody status enter HIPAA territory and may even trigger ADA concerns, according to Wright. Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says employers may measure employees' body temperatures because there is a declared pandemic, they should do so discreetly and must keep results confidential.

As to employers facing liability if a worker or customer becomes ill and claims insufficient protection, this is entirely possible(opens in new tab), especially for employees deemed essential. Some experts expect a spike in lawsuits.

Returning normal

Document the steps you took, following CDC and OSHA guidance, to protect customers and workers, and stay up-to-date on fast-evolving state and federal law(opens in new tab).

If an employee contracts the virus, Wright says it is good practice, though not mandated, to notify staff and recent customers of the possibility of exposure, without violating HIPAA by naming names, of course.

Local, state and federal laws around COVID-19 business liability are still being formed, so owners and executives should check in often with counsel, industry groups or their local Chamber of Commerce. The EEOC also has a useful guide(opens in new tab) that answers many common questions.

Cleanliness is Key

Before a company brings employees back to any workplace, it should have a plan to have the building professionally sanitized and disinfected regularly.

Note that studies show the virus lives no more than seven days on surfaces(opens in new tab). So if your facility has been closed for weeks, sanitization needs to start only after people come back into the building.

Though many businesses already have cleaning crews in their offices every day, a sanitization and disinfection service is different, said Pat Swisher, CEO of Enviro-Master(opens in new tab), which offers sanitization, disinfection and deep-cleaning services. Swisher compared daily janitorial services to brushing your teeth, while a professional sanitation service is like getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist.

He recommends having a service pay particular attention to restrooms, because they are often the source of spread for illnesses.

Swisher says to ensure any service you select uses an electrostatic sprayer(opens in new tab) that puts a positive charge on the disinfectant so it wraps around objects, which have a negative charge; otherwise, the chemical would simply fall away. The disinfectant used should kill pathogens including COVID-19, influenza and hepatitis; eliminate 99.9% of bacteria and keep the disinfected area free of 90% of bacteria for one week.

Swisher said most customers have their facilities disinfected weekly, though businesses like pharmacies or clinics need more frequent sanitization. Companies must also be prepared to have their buildings disinfected immediately if an employee tests positive for the coronavirus.

Janitorial services company iNX Commercial Cleaning has seen a spike in demand for its disinfection services, which were previously used mainly in hospitals and similar settings. Paul Laredo, CEO of iNX, recommends businesses use a day porter, someone who continually cleans and disinfects the building throughout the workday.

That’s costly, and a company’s decision to spend the money should be based on a number of factors, including how many people are on site and the prevalence of infection in the area.

“A lot is going to depend on people’s affinity for risk,” said Laredo, whose company has 15 franchises in Southern California. “If you want to try to minimize your risk, the bottom line is, as you have personnel in place, you need cleaning in place, because people will walk around your facility, and unless you’ve got this process where you have 100% of the people tested 100% of the time, you don’t know who has [the virus] and who doesn’t.”

Set Policies, Give Employees Necessary Supplies

Before employees return, leaders should establish clear guidelines and a plan to enforce them.

“There needs to be a policy that’s put in place by the executive management of the company,” Laredo said. “It can’t just be a suggestion. If you want people to follow a rule, the rule has to be, ‘This is what the company expects its employees to do and [how it] expects them to act.’”

These guidelines could include requiring workers to wash or disinfect their hands after they enter the building, cough, sneeze or blow their noses. Other suggestions include banning phones from the bathroom, closing community kitchens and not sharing desks, computers, keyboards or mice.

Depending on the nature of the workplace, businesses may also instruct employees to wear face masks and/or gloves. This makes sense for retail store and restaurant workers, for instance, since they interact with customers as part of their jobs (and it should help customers feel more comfortable, too). Even in an office setting, Swisher says employees should wear masks whenever possible.

A policy could require customer-facing workers to frequently wipe down equipment used by multiple people, like credit card machines, point-of-sale systems and time clocks. In offices and manufacturing facilities, executives could ask employees to wipe down their desks or workstations a few times a day.

But if a company implements these rules, it must give employees the supplies they need to comply.

Dippin’ Daisy’s Swimwear(opens in new tab), based in Los Angeles, has continued to operate during the pandemic, sewing face masks out of swimsuit material. The direct-to-consumer retailer gave every employee a face mask to wear on the job and requires them to put in a new filter daily, CEO Elaine Tran said. Dippin’ Daisy’s also equipped every sewer with disinfectant wipes to keep their sewing machines and tables clean.

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Because hand hygiene is critical to prevent the spread of the virus, business owners should make sure they take care of the obvious: Encourage frequent handwashing with signs and posters. Have enough soap, paper towels and tissues in every restroom and a sufficient supply to last for the next few months. Swisher also recommends putting hand sanitizer on every desk. Cleaning companies can monitor and restock all these supplies.

5 Social Distancing Strategies

The CDC says that social distancing is an essential step in preventing the spread of COVID-19(opens in new tab). Keeping employees six feet apart will be easier in some workplaces than others, but here are a few ideas to support social distancing in various environments:

Rethink the layout of your facility: Generally speaking, social distancing is more challenging in a factory or warehouse because employees work in close proximity or need to hand off products or materials to another person throughout their shifts. But there are ways to minimize this.

Dippin’ Daisy’s, for example, left an empty workstation in between every employee at its factory. Undershirt brand Thompson Tee(opens in new tab) spread out the pick-and-pack stations at its warehouse to ensure employees don’t come into close contact.

In offices, the days of open floorplans and shared desks with a dozen employees seated side-by-side — a favorite of startups — are likely over. Businesses may space out cubicles or add higher walls to existing cubes. Many retailers have put up plastic dividers in front of checkout counters, and restaurants may add them between booths.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) recommends(opens in new tab) changing seating arrangements in common spaces like break rooms and encouraging employees to take breaks outside. The same rules could help office-based organizations and manufacturers reinforce social distancing efforts.

Implement shifts: Splitting employees who would usually all work at once into multiple shifts is another way to make social distancing easier. This is an approach manufacturer Danby Appliances(opens in new tab) took. Its employees now work in two shifts as it continues making refrigerators and wine coolers while also helping assemble ventilators for the Canadian government.

Customer-facing businesses could also limit the number of employees working at once by limiting restocking during operating hours. Restaurants and retail stores are seeing a fraction of the visitors they previously saw in states where they are open, so they may not need to have as many associates or servers on the floor simultaneously.

Even traditionally office-based jobs, like accounting, can now be done remotely with the help of modern technology(opens in new tab). That makes it easier to follow a staggered schedule, with fewer employees coming in each day. Schedules could be organized by department — marketing comes in every Thursday, for example — to facilitate collaboration.

“We’re just not going to bring anybody back until we absolutely have to,” said Swisher, whose Charlotte office is usually home to 55 employees. He will also make sure that he, the COO and the CFO are never all in the office at once to prevent all three of the business’ top leaders from becoming ill.

Use signs and floor markers: Floor markers and/or signs that direct the flow of traffic or remind employees to stay six feet apart could be a practical tool in almost any workplace, whether an office, warehouse or restaurant.

Companies like Brady(opens in new tab) and Emedco(opens in new tab) make floor markers, mats and signs that remind employees to social distance or show where to stand. Arrows on the floor or wall can make hallways and other shared spaces one-way and prevent co-workers from passing each other.

Restaurants and retailers, in particular, may want to post signs that remind customers to help keep employees safe by giving them some space when asking for help or ordering.

Train – and remind – employees on the new protocol: Once your company establishes a plan for social distancing, it should not only communicate that policy with executive backing but train workers on what they need to do differently moving forward. Explain why you’re taking precautions and how they will help keep employees healthy.

Billy Thompson is co-owner of Thompson Tee, which is now making face masks. He’s reminded employees that they need to practice social distancing outside of work, as well.

“What I told all of them is, ‘Listen, the masks have stabilized our business, we’re doing a great thing here, we’re helping a lot of people,’” said Thompson. “‘So the only thing that’s going to stop us now is COVID itself, if one of you catches COVID and brings it in here and forces the operation to shut down.’ I said, ‘So please just keep that in mind as you guys go about your days and your free time when you’re outside the office, understand … what’s at stake here.’”

Again, technology can help. Ford is testing wrist bands(opens in new tab) that vibrate when an employee gets within six feet of a coworker.

Adjust processes and activities: Businesses will need to adjust certain processes to support social distancing. Activities that would have put multiple employees in close proximity, like meetings or group training sessions, can easily be avoided with affordable videoconferencing and other collaboration tools(opens in new tab).

Manufacturers and distributors may need to change how materials and goods move through the facility. For example, an employee responsible for getting raw materials to manufacturing colleagues may need to leave supplies in a few select areas near workstations instead of delivering them to each person.

Consider other small changes that reduce the risk of exposing employees to the virus. Danby, for instance, has stopped giving factory tours and limited outside visitors. NRF suggests retail employees not interact with drivers when they drop off shipments.

Other Precautions Worth Considering

While frequent cleaning and social distancing should minimize the chances of your workplace turning into a coronavirus hotspot(opens in new tab), there are plenty of other precautions businesses could take. One that’s been a frequent topic of discussion is temperature screenings before employees enter the building, which the CDC labels an “optional strategy.”

Temperature screenings may sound disruptive, but they don’t need to be awkward or a manual process.

“I’ve done a rapid deployment in two weeks for a major healthcare facility leveraging infrared cameras with AI,” said Matthew Douglas, chief enterprise architect for Sentara Healthcare(opens in new tab).

Douglas advises routing all traffic through one entrance and says infrared systems are accessible and affordable for most businesses. A new hardware offering from Microsoft(opens in new tab) can screen for masks and elevated temperatures, while airlines and casinos use thermal imaging cameras from the likes of FLIR Systems(opens in new tab).

Another precautionary step is improving air filtration in buildings. The CDC recommends businesses make sure their ventilation systems work well and consult with experts on which filters may prevent the virus from spreading.

Additionally, companies could make lights and doors hands-free(opens in new tab) with sensors.

Returning to a New Normal

As offices, stores and other workplaces reopen, some employees will be more comfortable returning to work than others. Many factors affect a worker’s level of concern, including personal experience, family situation and preexisting health issues.

iNX has seen a surge of queries from prospective and current customers, but the reasons why these companies are interested in its cleaning and disinfecting services vary greatly and change quickly as authorities issue new guidance.

“It is unique to each customer that we serve,” said iNX marketing director Meredith Sefchick. “It’s even hard to look at industries and group them together, or different verticals and group them together, because even within those, there are disparities. What it’s brought out is one person’s importance of an item is definitely different than the guy next to him. It’s been very eye-opening.”

Businesses should be sensitive to their employees’ concerns as they look to reopen and offer as much flexibility as possible. Following the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers and similar resources from state and local authorities will help organizations protect their workers.

“To earn the trust of your customers back as well as your employees, ... show that you’re doing everything you can to protect your customers and your employees’ health and safety,” Swisher said. “The old standard is no longer acceptable.”

Ian McCue is a content manager at NetSuite who also contributes to Grow Wire and the NetSuite blog. A former sports writer, he previously wrote about supply chain challenges and technology at HighJump Software. Reach Ian here.

Mark Bianco

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