Many businesses are preparing to transition to return to work in a continuously COVID-impacted world. Many states are starting to loosen COVID-19 related restrictions and open back up, and others are sure to follow suit.
Whether you already have a start-date in mind or do not know when it will be safe to bring employees back into the workplace, it is important to develop a return to work plan now to prepare your business for the inevitable reopening.
To help our clients and our community get back to work safely and effectively, Launchways held a comprehensive webinar on May 15, “Everything You Need to Know to Build a Return to Work Plan”. Our panel included experts in commercial real estate, human resources, executive management, and labor laws. They spoke for over an hour, addressing a staggering range of topics that employers will need to address to get back to work.
Luckily, we recorded the webinar and it is available to stream on-demand. We’ll share the link at the end of the article, but in the meantime, let’s take a look at each topic that our panelists addressed to get you started down the path to business as usual during the new normal.
Meet the Panel
Each of our panelists brought decades of valuable industry experience to the presentation. We were extremely lucky to field such an experienced panel, which included:
Bill Sheehy, Executive Vice President, CBRE: Bill is an experienced Executive Vice President at CBRE with a demonstrated history of being a top producing broker for almost two decades. Bill specializes in helping his clients through acquisitions, dispositions, lease negotiations, and more.
Heather Bailey, Partner and COVID-19 Task Force Member at SmithAmundsen’s: Heather Bailey is a partner in SmithAmundsen’s Labor & Employment Practice Group. For 18 years, Heather has concentrated her practice in employment and labor counseling and litigation, including discrimination and trade secret/non-compete lawsuits, FLSA class actions, labor negotiations and arbitrations, affirmative action, OFCCP/DOL audits and FINRA issues. She counsels on day-to-day operations, human resources, and management decisions regarding employees, practices, and policies.
Jim Taylor, Founder and President, Launchways: Jim is the CEO and Founder of Launchways. At Launchways, Jim focuses on bridging the gap between Finance and HR. He helps Finance leaders take a data-driven approach to Human Resources and Employee Benefits, allowing them to have more productive relationships with their HR team members. Jim is passionate about helping fast-growing businesses approach the people side of their business strategically.
Building a Return to Work Plan
Create a Cross-Functioning Steering Committee
The first step in building your return to work plan is to assemble your team. That means putting together a cross-functioning steering committee headed by a program lead who will engage the individual players and keep the ball rolling. While the whole leadership team needs to be involved in the decision-making process, giving one member ownership over the project will help keep your efforts focused and productive.
Next, get everyone involved in your organization: business leadership, finance, HR, IT, operations, and management. Not only will their voices be useful in developing an effective plan, but you will need their involvement to implement that plan.
Finally, engage your key partners including your corporate real estate partner, third-party providers for any outsource functions, as well as HR and benefits partners. Your property manager or building owner is a very most important partner to engage in your planning process as facility readiness is a key part of the reopening process.
Once you have everyone at the table, it’s time to put together your plan.
Before you bring your team members back into the workplace, you have to make sure that it is a safe environment free of the risk of infection. Jim and Bill explored how you can get your facilities ready for your team to return to work.
Your facility readiness responsibilities begin as soon as your employees walk through the front door. Work with your commercial real estate partner to establish shared policies for common areas of your building including elevators and entrances to the building and your offices. Elevators are going to be a particular pain point that you will have to figure out before opening.
Next, assess the cleaning requirements for different spaces in your office. Some may need more, or different, attention than others. Consider which areas are high-traffic or high-touch. These areas may need daytime cleaning, which you will have to work into your budget.
Finally, establish a space configuration plan that meets enterprise distancing standards. This plan should include:
- Desk policies
- Conference room policies
- Gathering space policies (break rooms, kitchens, etc)
- Access and traffic flow policies
Allowing Employees to Return to Work
After the space is ready to receive them, it’s time to start bringing employees back into the workplace. As part of your Return to Work Plan, you will need to determine who will come back into work and when. This depends partially on the state’s phase of reopening as well as federal guidelines.
When establishing this plan, employers need to differentiate between essential and non-essential workers, particularly when it comes to in-person work at a non-essential business. For example, in Illinois, non-essential businesses are required to maintain a remote work policy for everyone except for “Minimum Basic Operations” staff. You should also consider protective measures for those at higher risk, including telework and tasks that minimize contact.
Heather also explored the legal issues around requiring employees to return to work. The short version is that businesses that have been authorized to reopen and are implementing proper safety precautions can require their employees to return to the workplace. She also reminded employers that employees who choose not to risk losing their unemployment benefits. If employers are struggling with employees resisting returning to work rather than collecting unemployment, they can report those employees to the unemployment office. However, you must maintain a safe workplace to assert these rights.
That is why it is important to train your employees on proper distancing, cleaning, and safety best practices. You must also provide employees who will not be able to maintain 6-foot distancing with appropriate PPE, at your cost. And be ready to make accommodations for individual employees or customers who will not or cannot use PPE because of a disability or religious belief. There may not be a reasonable accommodation that you can make but you have to go through the process to protect your legal interests.
Heather also explored additional concerns including transportation and childcare. While employers are not responsible for employee’s transportation to and from work, they should do what they can to minimize the risk and assuage fears through proper education and scheduling. Employers also need to be prepared to respond to requests for remote work or time off to take care of children, including extending remote work or offering flexible scheduling or a leave of absence. Bearing in mind that employees who refuse to return to work because of childcare requirements may be eligible for benefits under the federal CARES Act, including unemployment.
The bottom line was that employers should try to be creative and think of possible solutions to each of these issues before they open up because these issues will come up.
Employee Health Screenings
Heather explored the legal and practical aspects of employee health screenings, a key area of concern for many employers considering their return to work plan.
She started by laying out the legal protections for employee health screenings. The EEOC has issued guidance on temperature and symptom checks before letting employees return to work. In the era of COVID-19, temperature checks also fall under “job related and consistent with business necessity” mandatory employee medical testing as allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
That being said, it is important to notify your employees of temperature and symptom screening measures in advance. It’s also important to emphasize that the purpose of the screenings is solely to protect employees from exposure to COVID-19 and not to detect any other illness, impairment, or disability. Finally, make it clear that it is not meant to be, nor is it, a substitute for a medical diagnosis.
Keep in mind that the laws and guidelines around testing may change over time, so plan to keep up-to-date and revise your policies as necessary. And as always, be prepared for requests to be exempted from screening due to medical or faith-based reasons. You may also have to compensate employees for time spent getting screened or waiting to be screened. While federal law likely does not require compensation, state laws may and employees are already filing lawsuits against their employers seeking compensation for time spent on screening.
Lastly, make sure that you have the equipment, personnel, and protocols in place before you start opening up. You should equip your team members who will be conducting the screenings with proper training and protective equipment. They are going to be on the front lines, protecting your workplace and team from exposure and risking exposure themselves in return, and should be treated as such. And you should minimize the risk of spreading the virus through screening. Meaning that touch-free thermometers and other safety measures are a must.
Establish a Timeline
Once you know how you are going to ensure that your employees return to work safely, it’s time to set a timeline for the transition back to work. This should be a week-to-week plan starting when the criteria for reopening are met. Bill presented a sample 90-day timeline based on CBRE’s 55-page reopening playbook:
- Opening Criteria Met: the clock starts as soon as the community readiness criteria are met and reopening plans are in place
- Week 1: “Readiness Teams” return to make final preparations
- Week 2: Employees who can work remotely continue to do so, while those who cannot start to return to the workplace
- Weeks 3-4: Select teams/employees return to the office, continued guidance to work from home if possible, return to the office is not mandatory
- Week 5: Refine approach based on employee return levels and ability to maintain safe distancing and other safety practices
- Recurring Status Review: Recurring 30-45 day status review process, updating guidance and processes as necessary
Our panel explored a range of further topics that employers will have to consider when allowing their employees to return to work. These topics included:
Potential discrimination concerns when it comes to implementing and enforcing new policies. Policies tend to be framed relatively loosely which leaves room for often-unintentional discriminatory enforcement. Furthermore, remind employees that it is illegal to harass or discriminate against coworkers based on race, national origin, color, sex, religion, age, disability, or genetic information. There continues to be xenophobia and discrimination directed towards Asian Americans due to COVID-19 and it is your responsibility to advise supervisors and managers of their role in watching for, stopping, and reporting any harassment.
Issues around hiring including your rights to delay the start date or withdraw the job offer for a new hire who tests positive for the virus and cannot safely enter the workplace. However, being a high-risk individual is not grounds for postponing the start date or withdrawing a job offer.
Potential lawsuits and the current state of workers compensation, particularly recent developments in the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission rules. Industry associations successfully got the Commission to withdraw its emergency rule that allowed any employee who tested positive to receive worker’s compensation. But employees can still receive worker’s compensation if they show that they were exposed to the virus through their work. Luckily, Heather outlined a Worker’s Compensation Questionnaire that will help employers protect themselves from fraudulent claims.
Stream the Webinar
Believe it or not, but we have barely scratched the surface of the wealth of information that our panelists shared during the webinar. That’s why we recorded the webinar and made it available to stream anytime you want. Stream the webinar on-demand now.