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It’s hard to believe we’ve been focusing our work at Launchways on helping businesses thrive, survive, and protect their employees during COVID-19 for just over a month now. As we’ve worked to support our clients during this evolving situation, we’ve found that businesses of all types, sizes, and industries keep coming back to the same core questions. That told us there was a need to create a resource that presented clear, actionable answers to some fundamental questions about coronavirus and the workplace.

Moving forward, we’ll present and answer those frequently asked questions, focusing on:

  • How to approach the workplace procedures in light of COVID-19
  • Understanding paid leave expansion under the FFCRA
  • Questions about furloughs and layoffs

General questions about COVID-19 workplace procedures

Can we take employee temperatures and ask about their health each day?

Yes. Given the circumstances, it is reasonable to explicitly check in with employees about their health each day, including temperature checks upon arrival to work. However, you must limit your questions to specific COVID-19-related concerns (i.e. you can’t start asking them about medications, on-going health issues, etc.).

When should/can sick employees return to work after leave due to COVID-19?

Before employees return to work, they should have been completely fever and symptom-free without the use of medications for 72 hours (3 full days). Furthermore, they should not return to work under any circumstances for at least seven days after diagnosis.

For example, if an employee is diagnosed on April 10 as having COVID-19 and stops experiencing symptoms and fever on April 12, they still cannot return to work until April 17 – 10 days from their diagnosis. On the other hand, if an employee is diagnosed on April 15 and stops experiencing symptoms on April 27, they can return to work on April 30 using the three-day rule.

Can we tell our employees when one of their colleagues tests positive for COVID-19?

You should, but you need to do it very carefully. You may not disclose the name or other identifying information of the person who has tested positive, as that is private medical information. However, it is also an important responsibility to inform employees when they have been exposed, including specific dates/locations, if possible.

Can we ask employees who call out sick about their symptoms?

You can ask employees who call out sick during this time about their symptoms in order to maintain your own internal audit of the spread of COVID-19. However, it’s crucial you only ask about COVID-19-related symptoms. If employees are out sick for another reason, it could be construed as discriminatory to question them.

Can we make an employee with a sick family member stay home?

You can, if their family member is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or has a confirmed diagnosis. With that said, if the employee themselves is feeling well and capable of work, you should find ways to enable them to work from home rather than forcing them to use accrued paid time off.

Can we send home an employee we’re concerned has been exposed?

CDC guidance does not explicitly recommend sending employees home unless they’ve had confirmed contact with either a symptomatic COVID-19 patient or someone who was later confirmed to be experiencing symptoms. However, if you have reason to believe someone has been in an unsafe setting that makes you nervous about the overall health and safety of your workforce, you can send that person home very carefully. When we say, “very carefully,” we mean in a non-punitive way that allows them to continue working and earning their salary without drawing undue attention or scrutiny.

Can we force employees to come into work?

If there is no specific threat to your employees’ safety or health, you can reasonably expect them to come to work and punish them for not doing so. However, you must be mindful of the Americans with Disabilities Act and make reasonable accommodations for professionals whose pre-existing conditions or medications put them at increased risk of complications from COVID-19. If someone has a doctor’s note saying they shouldn’t be interacting with the public or coming to work, you need to provide accommodations for them or transition them toward paid leave if none can be made.

What does my Telecommuting or Work-From-Home policy require?

If you don’t have a telecommuting/WFH policy on the books, it’s important to get one framed up in an addendum to your employee handbook. Generally speaking, you need to establish how telecommuting will work in terms of:

  • Hours
  • Expectations for communication/availability throughout the day
  • Official channels/platforms for work and communication
  • Workflow modifications and accountability systems
  • How telecommuting performance will be assessed
  • Reimbursement for home office supplies and home IT needs

Questions about paid leave expansion under the FFCRA

How much paid sick time or FMLA leave are employees entitled to?

The FFCRA states that employers must provide up to two weeks (80 hours) for full-time workers or a part-time employee’s two-week equivalent in sick time at their regular rate of pay if they:

  • Are subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19
  • Have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine related to COVID-19
  • Are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis

The FFCRA also provides up to 80 hours of paid sick leave at 2/3 the employee’s regular rate if they:

  • Are caring for an individual subject to a quarantine/isolation order or self-quarantine
  • Are experiencing any other substantially-similar condition specified by the US Department of Health and Human Services

Additionally, the FFCRA creates up to 12 weeks of paid sick leave and expanded FMLA leave at 2/3 the employee’s regular rate if they:

  • Are caring for their child whose school or place of care is closed or unavailable due to COVID-19 related reasons

How does the FFCRA connect to stay-at-home orders?

If your business is non-essential and therefore shut down as part of a federal, state, or local stay-at-home order, you do not need to provide paid sick or FMLA leave for your employees during the time you are closed.

Do all businesses under 500 employees really need to adhere to the paid leave expansions?

Generally, yes. If you are a business with fewer than 50 employees and adhering to the leave expansion would threaten the viability of your business, however, you can apply for a small business exemption.

When will enforcement of FFCRA requirements begin?

April 18th, but you can still be penalized if you are found to have not been acting in good faith between April 1 and April 17 when it comes to paying workers on leave or transitioning workers making reasonable requests for accommodations.

How can we afford the FFCRA’s leave expansion?

The CARES Act provides payroll tax credits which will offset these expenses dollar-for-dollar. The federal government has also promised to reimburse businesses 100% for expanded leave costs required through the Act, including both payroll and employee benefit costs.

Can employees really go on paid leave to provide childcare?

Yes! If your employee’s access to childcare has disappeared due to COVID-19 (school closures, day care shutdowns, providers getting ill, etc.), you must provide up to 12 weeks of paid FMLA leave at 2/3 their regular rate to stay home and provide care for their children under 18 until other accommodations can be made.

How do we make sure we get our tax credits?

The application/documentation procedure for the credits has not been formally announced yet. With that said, for employees going on leave, it’s best practice to gather whatever documentation you can (doctor’s notes, school closure notices, etc.) to create a strong narrative explaining the impact of COVID-19 on your business and employees.

How can we fairly handle incoming PTO requests when this normalizes?

Many businesses are worried that when some semblance of normalcy resumes, they’ll be flooded with PTO requests from employees. It’s definitely not too early to start articulating a policy for how vacation/planned PTO will have to be staggered upon return. This is another example of a situation in which proactive, honest communication with your team is the only real best practice right now.

Questions about furloughs & layoffs

What’s the difference between a layoff and a furlough?

We have a full guide on this topic, but here’s the abridged version: a furloughed worker is still employed but technically has no work to do; a laid off employee is, at least temporarily, no longer employed (i.e. there is a termination event).

How long can I furlough an employee?

This varies state by state. For example, in California, once someone has been furloughed for 30-days, you need to transition them toward a 60-day temporary layoff. Check with your state department of labor.

Can furloughed employees file for unemployment?

Yes, but the process is not consistent from state to state. In some areas, furloughed employees cannot gain access to unemployment benefits as quickly or easily as people who’ve been laid off. If you’re considering a mass furlough, it’s important to check your state unemployment framework and determine whether a layoff would provide greater financial security for your employees.

What if I’ve furloughed employees but aren’t seeing their unemployment claims?

If you’re concerned your furloughed workers aren’t getting the money they’re entitled to, you need to reach out to your state unemployment office and move the needle on documentation.

When do furloughed employees become COBRA-eligible?

This will vary based on your benefits carrier. Check with them or work with your benefits broker.

How to Learn More

If you’re looking to learn more about COVID-19 best practices, discover innovative approaches to HR that are making a difference in the time of social distancing, or connect with resources to help you lead your team through this time in a way that builds confidence and maintains team spirit, be sure to check out Launchways’ COVID-19 Coronavirus Resource Center.

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