How can Wisconsin employers prepare for a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak or other pandemics?

While many employers have plans for continuity of operations during natural disasters, the worldwide spreading of the coronavirus causing COVID-19 should give Wisconsin employers immediate pause with regard to your company’s handling of pandemics, epidemics, and other infectious disease outbreaks.

Imagine if just one employee at your place of business tests positive for COVID-19. How many employees would be exposed through that one infected person? Given that COVID-19 specifically has up to a 14- day incubation period, your employee might have had contact with not only coworkers, but also vendors, customers, clients, mail carriers, and others at your place of business.

Consider also that while the sick employee may have had only mild symptoms, the COVID-19 virus could be devastating to older workers or those with pre-existing health conditions, as well as family members of your employees.

Every well-prepared business should have guidelines in place for: 

  • reducing exposure among employees, which includes ongoing communication with staff
  • addressing pay issues which will undoubtedly arise (including quarantine time or time to care for an affected family member)
  • increasing remote working among employees
  • establishing and maintaining lines of communication with clients and customers
  • handling a public crisis, especially should your business be a focal point of an outbreak

What can employers do to reduce employee exposure at work?

  1. Remind employees about frequent hand-washing, covering your cough, and other basic guidelines to help prevent exposure. Suggest they avoid public transportation or other crowded, public places and events, including traveling to infected areas.
  2. Provide ample supplies of hand soap and hand sanitizers in work areas and common spaces like break rooms. Have spray bottles with sanitizer and paper towels so employees can wipe down surfaces like copy machines or countertops after each use.
  3. Encourage people to stay home if they are sick or have symptoms of illness. Provide guidelines offered by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regarding who should stay home when not feeling well to help limit those employees coming to work.
  4. Reschedule business travel and events such as training, meetings, or social gatherings until a later date.
  5. Consider implementing temporary policies such as no handshaking, no group events, and no food sharing. Choose teleconferencing rather than in-person meetings.

How should an employer pay employees who are ill, have a possible exposure, or who are quarantined?

For an infectious disease outbreak, typical sick-leave and time-off policies may need to be reviewed and made more flexible. There are a lot of “what ifs” when it comes to infectious illnesses.

What if your employee has been exposed to an illness and needs to be quarantined? What if a staff member chooses to stay home to avoid illness, especially if that person is in a higher risk category? What if employees need to stay home to care for a family member who has fallen ill to the pandemic? The requirements to pay such employees may be different.

Employees who know they will receive paid time off during an epidemic will be more likely to stay home and reduce the spread of illness.

What if you need to temporarily close your business to reduce the spread of disease or because you are short-staffed due to illness?

In certain cases, as seen with the coronavirus, businesses and organizations may need to close their doors temporarily or cut back hours of operation. If that happens to your business, consider the following:

  • Your employees will need to know how long they will be paid while not working. While employees may understand time-off policies as it relates to inclement weather, your policies should be clear about involuntary time off during a community health crisis.
  • You must be able to readily and effectively communicate notice of the closure or reduced hours to your customers and suppliers.
  • If your business has multiple locations and not all are shut down, consider transferring responsibilities to other locations.
  • Consider cross training of responsibilities to prepare for increased absenteeism and to maintain continuity of operations.

Can your employees work remotely?

If it is possible for your employees to work from home, then be prepared for this to happen in advance of an emergency. Most employees probably have a personal computer or mobile device in which emails and files can be retrieved.

Have your IT personnel work with employees as soon as possible to ensure key employees can work from home. You will need to consider the security of sensitive company and client information in such cases, and you should have policies in place to address those concerns.

Is your business ready to communicate appropriately during a workplace health crisis?

Say that an infectious disease such as COVID-19 has invaded your business. Or worse, what if your company is a focal point of a local infectious disease spread? Is your company able to address this crisis publicly?

Consider the following:

  1. Do you have a media spokesperson and backup spokesperson in place?
  2. Who is will handle communications from your business about the matter on your company’s social media, website, google page, and more?
  3. How will your business communicate with employees in advance of the release of any public information? This is imperative! Your employees need to be kept informed before the public.
    Be sure to establish a communication process that will reach all employees at the same time. Some employees may work on a computer, others on the road or in the field, and others in a factory or outdoor setting. What kind of communication plan can reach all of them whether they are working or not? A text message? Phone call? Email? Do you need multiple ways to reach your people? Be prepared.
  4. Have an emergency response team organized in advance of a crisis. Be sure the message, process, and means to communicate with every employee, customer, and the media are in place.
  5. It’s important that your communications are honest and forthcoming. Dishonesty can negatively affect your company’s reputation and employee morale moving forward.
  6. Remember to follow Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines as it relates to employee privacy.

Making sure your business is ready to handle a pandemic or epidemic

In today’s world, employers must be prepared to respond to a health crisis that could affect your operations.

Be sure to update your employee manual with policies for an infectious disease outbreak. Have guidelines in place to help reduce employee exposure, including providing cleaning supplies and when-to-stay-home standards. Offer remote working. Use teleconferencing in place of face-to-face meetings. Reschedule events. Have a communications plan (internal and external) ready to go. Be proactive.

For legal questions about your company’s policies and plans, contact an employment law attorney at Murphy Desmond in Madison, Janesville, Appleton, or Dodgeville, Wisconsin. You may reach us over email at email@murphydesmond.com or call us at our main phone number 608.257.7181.

Published March 12, 2020

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