How to Adjust Your Business Policies as Employees Return to Work
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals and businesses worldwide will continue to be felt to some degree in 2021 and beyond. Employers should take the time to reevaluate existing policies and procedures to reflect the new workplace — hybrid schedules, sick leave policies — and consider adopting or updating their business continuity plan in a continued effort to protect your business and employees.
Communications and workplace policy changes
Even as states have removed most of the COVID-19 restrictions, it’s a good idea to continue following the most current information on maintaining workplace safety and disseminating updated information to your workforce. Trusted resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local departments of health frequently provide updates on their websites.
As employers bring their businesses back to being fully operational, be prepared to continue implementing strategies that help protect workers and make them aware of actions you have taken to help keep them safe.
As individuals continue to get vaccinated, be mindful of any federal, state and local leave laws related to time off — unpaid and paid — an employee is eligible for to get a vaccination or recover from any effects from getting vaccinated. You might want to consider assessing existing company policies around sick leave allowances.
Also, be careful about making any decisions that could be deemed unlawful discrimination under federal, state or local laws. If you’re uncertain about the requirements that apply to your business, you may want to work with an experienced HR professional or consult with your legal counsel.
To be certain everyone is on the same page with respect to your company's leave policies, you may want to outline in detail the extent of your current leave policy and, if you are making changes as they relate to COVID-19, spell out all the information as clearly as possible.
If you have employees who have been working from home this past year, you may be considering whether to continue remote work arrangements for the long-term. Sustaining a permanent work-from-home arrangement requires its own protocols and best practices. Employee time and attendance tracking, employee liabilities, staff availability and cybersecurity considerations are just a few.
Make sure to also consider exempt vs. non-exempt employee status and the potential impact on pay for work-from-home employees.
Maintaining a safe, healthy work environment
Employers planning to open buildings and offices to employees should develop a comprehensive written plan that outlines steps being taken to protect individuals against infectious diseases, including COVID-19. This type of comprehensive plan is beneficial to employees (and, by extension, to the entire organization) to have in place. At the same time, documentation of this kind is essential, if and when you’re contacted by OSHA to ascertain your business’s preparedness with respect to COVID-19.
Use our template for an infectious disease preparedness plan. Some states and localities may have specific requirements around creating an infectious disease response plan and this template may not meet expectations everywhere.
Employers should communicate basic infection prevention measures to ensure employees are comfortable as they return to work and to demonstrate sensible precautions are being taken to ensure a safe environment. These could include thorough handwashing, eliminating shared workspaces or tools and regular cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces and equipment.
Businesses that remained open during the pandemic implemented workplace controls to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Some of these could still be considered by businesses as a proactive step in creating a safer work environment and addressing employee concerns. These could include installation of high-efficiency air filters or adding physical barriers between workstations.
Other refinements have already become part of daily business practices such as virtual communications, offering training on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and providing a cadence of fact-based information from trusted sources on changes that could impact employee and workplace safety.
This information can be included in a written infectious disease exposure control plan and modified to fit your specific work conditions. Businesses should also consider maintaining an open-door policy to receive and address any employee concerns regarding workplace safety or health.
Potential Liability in Returning to Work
Employers should be aware of potential liability for discrimination or other violations in the return-to-work process. Broadly speaking, these may include:
- Negligence for not maintaining a safe workplace
- Data privacy and confidentiality issues related to medical information
- American with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations
- Hiring practices and return-to-work selection
- Issues related to benefits administration (COBRA or state continuation notices, unpaid PTO, compliance with recently implemented COVID-19 leave legislation, etc.)
Business owners can consult their legal advisors for guidance in avoiding these liability issues.
Many business leaders see themselves playing a role in employee vaccination in an effort to protect their staff. A Paychex snap poll* found that 75% of small businesses (10-49 employees) and 85% of medium-sized businesses (50-500 employees) plan to motivate their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
You may be able to develop mandatory vaccination policies for employees that comply with federal requirements. According to recent guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a mandatory vaccination policy may be lawful under federal employment laws, if the virus poses a “direct threat” and the employer provides reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, medical conditions (including pregnancy) and those with sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.
However, depending on the nature of an employer’s business, a number of practical issues should be considered before imposing a mandatory vaccine program and employers should consult with their legal counsel before doing so. Likewise, employers considering offering incentives to employees to receive COVID-19 vaccination should seek guidance from legal counsel.
Paychex Can Help
Our COVID-19 Help Center also has resources such as webinars, podcasts, and articles along with our interactive state tool with guidance on reopening, return to work, paid leave, retirement and more.
Take this opportunity to check your current policies and procedures, and reach out to HR and workplace experts such as Paychex to ensure you and your business are ready for whatever comes next.
This article was previously updated Feb. 25, 2021.
* Paychex conducted an online survey of 300 principals of U.S. companies with 2 to 500 employees. The survey was fielded Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2021.