As COVID-19 continues to impact Arizona, some previous restrictions are being loosened. Gov. Dou Ducey announed this week that restaurants and coffee shops can resume in-restaurant dining with physical distancing measures in place on May 11 and in the coming weeks, offices can begin reopening. As offices reopen, they will be implementing new procedures that take into account employee health and safety, in addition to how previous operations and day to day tasks are carried out differently post COVID-19.
We spoke with Karen Stafford, Arizona President of Employers Council about some key concerns employers might have upon reopening the workplace to make it a safe environment and employees who are returning to the workplace after working from home or being furloughed and invited back to the office.
Questions employers need to consider:
AZ Big Media: What will the new “normal” look like?
Karen Stafford: I think the new normal is going to be socially distant, that is a term that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future, so for employers it’s a matter of thinking about ‘what did my workplace look like before and what work needs to get done so that I can start thinking about ways that I need to prepare my workplace structure as far as breakroom and conference room protocol.’
How will I interact and cross paths in a socially distant manner? How do we learn to coordinate as an office so we can maintain that distance at least for the foreseeable future and that may cause some of us to rethink our cubicle structures or offices vs. cubicles.
The ways that we interact with our clients or customers, and so what protocols do we need to adjust or edit? What signage do we need to put in place as we interact with our customers? In our business we do a lot of our contact by email and phone, but a lot of in person meetings, so we’ve moved to the virtual world, how much of that do we maintain? And how do we approach or work with those members that do want us onsite or do want to meet in person?
So it’s a matter of considering all of our interactions unfold and how do those look as businesses start back up, that new normal is going to look different going forward. There’s a lot of great technological changes that organizations have started using and had thought about using for years, and figuring out which of those ways we want to keep and make sense and broaden our ability to connect with our customers and clients.
AZ Big Media: What considerations will employers take into account regarding who and how many employees to bring back?
KS: For me it starts at what is the work that needs to get done? Considering if there work that can still be done virtually then is there a need to rush back into the office so to speak, if that’s working then maybe for now we allow those employees to do it from home. If there are pieces of business that are not getting done where we need the personnel in the office then we look to see who are those employees and does it have to be done everyday? Is it something where we have five people who are skilled at that task and it has to be done in the office, can we rotate it, so that’s also an option.
And it may very well be that there are some jobs that need to come back into the office and those choices of who you bring back in need to be done objectively and having a criteria for how you decide who to bring back: is it seniority or performance based, and insuring that as you’re making those decisions that you’re also keeping in mind that it’s not done in a discriminatory manner.
AZ Big Media: How can employers keep employees safe?
KS: As employers were winding down in person operations, we saw an uptick in communication around basic hand washing, we recommend that there’s clear signage about washing hands and that employers consider offering some kind of cloth mask or face covering that helps cut down on any kind of airborne transmission. Our organization is issuing everyone a mask, so we’re supporting our employees with having that available.
Other organizations are intensifying cleaning and disinfectant and ventilation systems, talk with your landlord for your leased space to ask what protocols they’ve put in place to keep the building clean and what does that schedule look like and make requests as necessary.
Depending on the line of work that there are other things like gloves or safety glasses, those personal protective equipment items that maybe weren’t a part of your workspace before, do they make sense? Do you have sanitizer and bleach wipe protocol? While employers have got into the habit of doing that, the next step is telling your employees what you’re doing, so even if they don’t see you doing it, they know that it’s happening.
OSHA has a great pamphlet that we recommend because it goes into detail about isolation of sick people if appropriate, but there are all kinds of great suggestions with regard to how do you make sure everyone is respecting this new work rule which is six feet of distance.
So letting your employees know what your expectations are– are you going to require them to wear masks or is it nice to have if they have one and want to wear it? As an employer are you going to take the temperature of everyone coming into the office everyday, is that part of your protocol? If it is, who is going to do it, how is it going to work? I think in this day and age where so many things are uncertain, clarity is the key, we don’t have all the answers so we can’t give you certainty, but we can give you clarity in terms of what our expectations are as the employer of what this new normal looks like.
Questions employees need to consider
AZ Big Media: Is it safe to return to the workplace? What if I or others get sick?
KS: You want to have an environment where employees feel comfortable telling the employer they feel sick, which is totally opposite of our pre COVID life, so we need to help employees feel comfortable coming forward and saying, ‘I’m not feeling well, I woke up with a bit of a fever.’
Employers do want to hear that so that we can then make sure they don’t come in or don’t feel they need to come into the workplace if that’s the case. So if you’re not feeling well, definitely let your employer know that.
Practicing all of those safe habits yourself if you’re concerned, talk to your supervisor about wearing a mask or is the company allowing or offering you a chance to do that and being educated on the CDC recommendations as an employee is also helpful. I think letting your employer know what your concern is, how are you keeping the workplace clean for me? What steps have you taken to ensure the workplace is safe? So it’s ok as an employee to prompt the employer and ask questions so it increases an employee’s comfort coming back.
Another question would be is an employer allowed to take my temperature? What if I say no? That’s another one where the employer is responsible for the safety of the workplace and if they are consistently doing a temperature check as a gate to get into the workspace, at this time due to the community spread of this condition employers are allowed to do that.
I think for a lot of people it’s going to cause hesitation to collectively come out of our at home status and that’s totally understandable. Ask your employer those questions on your mind and see what your employer has to offer in terms of guidance or policies, procedures and support.
AZ Big Media: What if an employee has school-age children at home?
KS: It will depend on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that went into effect April 1st which does take into account emergency leave time for that purpose and that is only for employers who qualify. In order to qualify, you have to be a business of 500 employees or fewer and in that case talking to your employer about that, saying ‘my child’s school got canceled, and you’re asking me to come back in early May and the little one is six years old and I have no other way to handle that’ can that employee continue to work from home until school is over or other arrangements can be made, if not, then there may be protection under the FFCRA for the employee to invoke that leave.
AZ Big Media: What would a concern be for an employee who has been furloughed or has been collecting unemployment for a certain amount of time when returning to the workplace?
KS: Hopefully it’s good news that there’s work available and the employer wants you back, so that’s the ideal outcome, that the employee gets called back, maybe they get an email or something that says something like ‘We’re pleased to offer a reinstatement of your position and here are the parameters around that.’
So if that happens with an employee who has children, reaching out and asking if you can come back in a virtual way, ‘thank you for the offer, however my school age children are home’ and working through those concerns with their manager.
If a company doesn’t qualify for FFCRA or if they’re exempt, the question for the employer then becomes, if the employee can’t come back for three more weeks because of childcare responsibilities, do I fire a good employee, but I don’t know if that’s the choice I want to make either because I would like her back in the office as soon as she can get back.’
So certainly employers want to make good long-term decisions not an immediate decision that has a long-lasting unintended consequence. If an employee gets an offer to go back to work assuming that was their intention to get back to work fantastic, if they were to turn that down just out of ‘I’m not ready, I love being home’ that’s certainly the employee’s choice. Maybe they found another job, so they can turn their employer down at the invitation to work, however, if they were to do that, they are initiating that termination which isn’t going to help when they file for unemployment.
From an employer’s perspective, if somebody does refuse to return to ask a few more questions, try to understand why that is. Is it an underlying condition, is that they tested positive and they just don’t want to tell you…so try to understand if there’s a reason that they should be either put out on a leave of absence or there may be some legal implications for that.
Employers Council is also making its COVID-19 related resources available to the business community. These resources can be found here: https://www.employerscouncil.org/corona-resources.