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Returning to Work “As Usual”: COVID Edition

Returning to Work “As Usual”:  COVID Edition

Creating a return to work policy can be tricky under normal circumstances. Throw everything that COVID impacts into the mix and things move right past tricky into “maybe I should outsource this” territory. If this feels like something you’re relating to right now, read on! Outsourcing might be right for you, but you may be able to tackle this head on with a little help.

Things to take into consideration

  • Local and state laws that may differ from the Federal guidelines. For example, Seattle has specific guidelines in place for gig workers during the current COVID climate. In Texas sick-leave legislation has been proposed, so HR folks working out of Texas should keep an eye out for pending changes. California and New York also have state specific guidelines in place, so take a look if those are relevant to your work location.
    • I highly recommend that you reflect your specific state and local regulations in your return to work policy! It solidifies what you’re doing in response to local laws during COVID for your employees, which is much needed during this time of uncertainty! This will also be a great addition in the event you receive unemployment claims that need policy evidence (remember, each state’s unemployment process is different so employees may be eligible to continue to draw unemployment if they choose not to return to work as part of a workforce recall).
  • Research your local area and network with other local HR professionals to see if they’re implementing unique return to work policies. Not every workplace is the same and each will have special considerations to make based on how they conduct work. However, you may find a solution that can be adjusted to fit your situation and vice versa. You may have some creative ideas of your own to share that they’ll value!
  • How to handle COVID exposure. Does your workplace need to consider adding an Exposure notification process to your policies? If so, you may need to add it to your return to work policy as well. Employees will need information and guidance on what to do if they or a person living with them have been exposed to COVID. More information on this is below!

Who will (and will not) be returning to work

Not all employees will be returning to the office. Although we’d like to think that we can conduct “business as usual” it’s not likely that our pre-COVID normal will return. Considering this, it may not be necessary to have all of your employees return to the workplace. Think through what that will look like and how that needs to be communicated to your employees.

If you have employees who will not be returning to work indefinitely, be sure to include that in your communications. If possible, you might consider offering employees the option to either return to the office or continue working from home. Meet with your managers and leadership team, if you haven’t already done so, to discuss what work will look like in the future and how to make that happen.

Procedures for those in a physical workplace

For your employees who will be returning to a physical place of business, make sure that you have thought through how you’ll be conducting business. 

  • Will employees need to meet with clients/customers? 
  • Will travel be involved? 
  • How will you maintain social distancing measures?
  • Will employees be required to verify a clean bill of health before they can return to work?
  • What happens if a customer/client notifies you that they’ve been exposed to COVID?
  • How will customers/clients treat your employees and how will you handle situations that come up?

You should have answers to all of these questions before allowing your employees to return to a physical workplace. Discuss a potential “phase in” option with your leadership to see how employees handle returning to work in person. Keep in mind that you may also be required to notify the public and the local health department if one of your employees tests positive for COVID or is exposed.

Once you have a solid plan in place, be sure to recall your furloughed employees through legal means. If there are employees you are not intending to bring back to your workplace, check with your internal legal counsel (if available) to verify that you are within your legal right to do so. If you don’t have internal legal counsel, use documentation such as a performance review or disciplinary action to justify your reason for not recalling an employee to the workplace.

Working from home guidelines

Employees working from home will have a completely different set of guidelines to discuss. If you have employees working from home already, I encourage you to have a plan in place for if those employees need to care for a family member or loved one who has been exposed to COVID. Consider that the employee may also have been exposed and may need time off of work to recover and/or take care of household members who are ill.

Although their return to work process will be different from those who will be required to return to work in person, be mindful of the fact that a main symptom of COVID is fatigue. Employees may do well to return to work on a part-time or reduced work hour basis until they are well enough to work their regular schedule. Always have the employee provide their doctor’s recommendations as part of this process, similar to the requirements for FMLA and the FFCRA’s guidelines. Even if your organization employs less than 50 individuals, you will need to have protocols in place to ensure employees do not burn themselves out while they are ill or caring for a member of their household.

Testing and leave considerations

When you’re ready for your employees to return to the workplace, make sure you have clear guidance on any testing procedures your company may be utilizing. If you choose to screen employees before returning to work, let them know where to go and when. They should also know what the symptom thresholds are and what to do if they exceed them.

You might consider using the following language:

“Effective [DATE], all employees reporting to work will be screened for respiratory symptoms and have their body temperature taken as a precautionary measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Every employee will be screened, including having their temperature taken, when reporting to work. Employees should report to [location] upon arrival at work and prior to entering any other areas of [company name] property.

Each employee will be screened privately by [insert name or position or company] using a touchless forehead/ temporal artery thermometer [insert method your company is using]. The employee's temperature and answers to respiratory symptom questions will be documented, and the record will be maintained as a private medical record.

Time spent waiting for the health screening will be recorded as time worked for nonexempt employees.

An employee who has a fever at or above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or who is experiencing coughing or shortness of breath will be sent home. The employee should monitor their symptoms and call a doctor if they are concerned about the symptoms.

An employee sent home can return to work when:

  • They have had no fever for at least three (3) days without taking medication to reduce fever during that time; AND
  • Any respiratory symptoms (cough and shortness of breath) have improved; AND
  • At least ten (10) days have passed since the symptoms began.

An employee may return to work earlier if a doctor confirms the cause of an employee's fever or other symptoms is not COVID-19 and releases the employee to return to work in writing.

An employee who experiences fever and/or respiratory symptoms while home should not report to work. Instead, the employee should contact their immediate supervisor for further direction.”

EAP and dealing with mental health/survivor’s guilt

Lastly, once your employees return to work, make sure that you have your policies and information related to your Employee Assistance Program (if you have one) are easily accessible to your employees. COVID affects us all in very different ways. For me, it’s caused some mental health flare-ups that haven’t been a concern for a while - it’s likely that your employees may be experiencing some of the same things I have. 

Keeping the information accessible and reminding your employees that it’s there for them to use is the best course of action. If your employees are experiencing mental health flare-ups or if they are experiencing survivor’s guilt if they’ve lost a family member or loved one, make sure to let them know what resources they have available. Before COVID, you might have started a conversation with a frequently absent employee about what might be causing the absenteeism. Now should be no different.

Stay safe and remember that your employees are people too!