The rapid spread of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is disrupting business (and life) everywhere. As new clusters are identified across Europe and the Middle East, fears of the virus are impacting the US stock market and there are concerns of a global pandemic.
With no end in sight, many US companies are questioning what policies and practices they need to put in place, and revisiting those that they may already have in place to deal with this rapidly evolving situation. We recommend that companies take the following steps now.
Next Steps for Employers
- Emergency Preparation Team. Assemble a cross-functional emergency management team to handle issues such as employee health and safety, internal and external communications, medical leaves, personal leaves and disability accommodations, technology support, and legal compliance. As the situation continues to develop, it will become increasingly important to have a single team that is aware of all potential virus-related issues for consistency and precedent-setting purposes.
- Decision Making Authority. The team should include responsible persons from the relevant departments (e.g., HR, IT, legal, communications, etc.), and should be or have access to decision makers who can make immediate decisions on office closures, leave requests, working from home policies, etc.
- Pandemic Policy. The company should review its current emergency management policies. If it does not have a pandemic policy, it should develop one. Depending on the location, the company may have an analogous policy or experience with other business disruptions as a starting point (e.g., for earthquakes, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, strikes, etc.). This will likely include an emergency communication protocol, as well as procedures for closing and opening offices, working with limited staff, etc. In some companies, this could also include additional technical support to allow employees to work remotely, and HR and communication support to ensure that employees are being treated fairly and that the company is as consistent as possible in its messaging. •
- Safety Awareness. The team should also closely monitor the relevant health guidelines from the relevant government and non-government authorities, such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Workplaces should prioritize basic disease prevention measures, like promoting proper hygiene and actively encouraging workers to stay home if they're not feeling well. CDC has additional strategies such as:
- Place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance of workplaces and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen.
- Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.
- Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used preferentially if hands are visibly dirty.
- Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained. Place hand rubs in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.
- Perform routine environmental cleaning. Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.
- Sick Leave. We generally advise that companies follow their existing medical and sick leave policies, but modified as recommended by the public health authorities. For example, in the US the CDC specifically recommends that companies:
- Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance;
- Develop "non-punitive leave policies" so that sick employees do not feel pressured to come into work where they can infect others;
- Loosen requirements for a doctor's note for employees to validate a respiratory illness or to return to work; and
- Maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member.
Travel Restrictions. Companies are starting to take more proactive measures to prepare for a wider outbreak. Implementing business and personal travel policies is advisable. Currently, recommendations are as follows:
- The CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to and from mainland China, Iran, South Korea and Italy. The CDC recommends that older adults or those who have chronic medical conditions consider postponing travel to Japan; and travelers should take usual precautions with regard to travel to and from Hong Kong. Of course additional countries may be added to the list based on emerging information regarding the spread of virus.
- Consider instructing employees who have visited the above-noted restricted countries/regions or have been in close contact with someone who has been in those countries/regions within the last 14 days to promptly disclose their travel or contact history to their supervisor to determine if it is appropriate to work from home for a period of time.
- Consider video conferencing as an alternative to foreign travel.
- Look ahead to future big meetings and events to assess safety and to consider alternatives.
- Visitor Policies. With respect to guests and visitors, companies are beginning to develop screening policies for clients, guests and other visitors, as well as limiting access to social visitors to company sites. This is an evolving issue, but we know that in jurisdictions that are at a higher risk level, companies can do so. Here in the US, it's a little more difficult for a variety of reasons, in part because COVID-19 has not yet been designated as a "pandemic," so all of the normal privacy, accommodation, etc. rules still apply. If, though, COVID-19 becomes a "direct threat" to US workplaces, then companies will likely have greater leeway to make inquiries to protect workplaces.
- Cost-Cutting Strategies. Be forward-thinking. COVID-19 will impact the bottom line. As the economy braces for a coronavirus challenge, many companies may be forced to cut costs. Layoffs, furloughs and reducing labor costs are invariably top of mind. And, because international labor and employment rules are vastly different from those inside the US, it is vital in-house counsel and human resources professionals wear a global hat when approaching these changes. What works from a US point of view may not work internationally. Companies should be mindful of the differences as they plan cost-cutting measures involving their employees.