This year, HR pros around the globe have been running at full speed trying to keep up with the compounding challenges brought on by the pandemic. And, while “planning ahead” may seem impossible these days, we can offer some blueprints for navigating the current and potential COVID challenges we see coming our way in 2021. In preparation for the winter ahead, keep these things in mind:
Mask Mandates – Employers Can Enforce Their Own Standards!
For most US states and territories, face coverings are mandated by law as a preventive measure during the coronavirus pandemic. And, the majority of governors now strongly encourage wearing face masks, regardless of a state mandate.
But did you know that, as an employer, you have the right to enforce your own safety standards superseding federal and state mandates? That’s right! If your workplace chooses to require mask-wearing in the office and an employee is refusing to wear one, you can discipline on your own terms up to and including termination of an employee.
The caveat of this mandate is for an employee who has a disability or health condition where wearing a mask could cause them harm. In that situation, an employer would then need to determine what other types of accommodations can be made for those employees and work with those individuals to find a solution.
Handling Positive Cases
Whether you’re an essential business continuing to operate on-site, or a business preparing to return to the office, every workplace should have a plan in place for handling positive COVID cases. Here are 5 steps we recommend taking if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19:
1. Enforce Quarantine + Provide Guidance: First things first, make sure that the sick employee does not return to the office until they’ve properly quarantined following CDC guidelines.
2. Contact Trace + Assess the Risk of Exposure: As soon as you hear that one of your employees has contracted COVID, work with that employee to trace which co-workers they’ve been in close contact with and then establish which contacts you will notify.
Contact tracing tools can be useful for tracking which employees shared shifts and workspaces. If you find that the sick employee was in contact with a coworker for a prolonged period (about six feet or less for 15 minutes or more over the course of 24 hours), that employee should be notified and advised to quarantine following CDC guidelines. If you aren’t confident in your risk assessment, call your local or state health authority to help you determine which employees should quarantine.
3. Notify Exposed Co-Workers: Once you’ve identified which employees are close contacts of your sick employee, individually reach out to each contact explaining the situation and providing guidance on next steps. In doing so, be sure not to disclose which employee is sick. Employees won’t like that they can’t gauge their own risk, but the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires this type of information to remain confidential. Don’t worry if employees figure it out on their own, but make sure you’re not the one to reveal the information (and don’t drop sneaky hints to help them along).
4. Disinfect Areas Used by the Sick Employee: Through the duration of this pandemic, cleaning and disinfecting should be happening daily. And, in the event that one of your employees has contracted Covid-19, you’ll want to take extra precautions. Here are the cleaning practices the CDC recommends:
- Close off areas used by the person who is sick for 24 hours, if possible
- Open outside doors and windows to increase air circulation in the area
- Clean and disinfect areas and items used by the person who is sick (their workstation, bathrooms, common areas, tablets, touch screens, keyboard, registers)
For more detailed instructions on cleaning and disinfecting the workplace after someone is diagnosed, see the CDC’s Guidance for Business and Employers.
5. Determine When an Employee Can Return to Work:
Guidelines for quarantines have shifted in the past couple of months, and will likely continue to shift as we collectively learn more and more about COVID. Generally, an employee will be okay to return when at least 24 hours have passed since the resolution of fever without the use of medication, AND other symptoms have improved, AND at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared or since the positive test result, if the employee is asymptomatic.
While the VDH and the CDC recommend a quarantine period of 14 days for people exposed to COVID-19 for the lowest risk of infecting others, both agencies say the period could be shorter in some cases, an accommodation meant to lower the burden on people.
For employees with symptoms who meet the symptom-based guidelines, a 10-day quarantine is completely appropriate. And, for those employees experiencing COVID symptoms who receive a negative diagnostic or rapid test performed on or after the 5th day following exposure, a 7-day quarantine is okay. Just remember that the CDC guidelines are the baseline requirement. States and localities can go beyond these recommendations if they want to. The safest option is still to quarantine for 14 days after the last exposure.
Planning for a Vaccine Roll-Out
In mid-December, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its guidance to include what you may and may not do as an employer in terms of requiring or encouraging employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. According to this EEOC guidance, employers are allowed to require employees to get vaccinated, but as with all things pandemic, it remains to be seen how this will play out. We may see litigation, potential new state and local laws, and emerging guidance, so it might be prudent for employers to adopt a voluntary/encouraged/recommended vaccine policy for now. Some tactics you can take to promote higher levels of participation are:
- Educate your employees about the vaccine.
- Be vocal about leadership getting the vaccine and lead by example.
- Make it easy for them to get it, including paid time off for anyone who experiences side effects.
- Cover any associated costs.
If you do hope to require employees to get a vaccine, there are a few EEOC and ADA requirements you’ll need to be aware of including medical privacy laws, reasonable accommodation standards, and disability nondiscrimination laws. See our article, Can Employers Require Employees to Get Vaccinated: Considerations Under EEOC + ADA for more details!
Need direct assistance with HR challenges brought on by COVID?
Our HR Service, DP Boost can help! Learn More»
Article co-written by Isabelle Tobe and Lesley Bruno