By Audra Hedberg, PHR, PHRca, SHRM-CP, Senior Compliance Consultant at Trüpp

An employer’s guide for returning employees back to work safely

As shutdown orders are being relaxed around the country, many organizations that closed or reduced staffing are now reopening. These employers are now faced with recalling and rehiring previously laid-off employees or those who were furloughed. But returning to work does not mean business as usual. There are a number of considerations and steps employers need to take as they reopen under the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve compiled a step-by-step guide to assist employers with safely recalling and re-employing their staff.

1. Assess Safety Factors and Employee Readiness to Return

First and foremost, organizations should follow all federal, state, and local guidelines for re-opening according to industry. A good place to start is the COVID-19 pages of your local state’s official website. These pages contain helpful information and guidelines for employers, often by industry, which will keep you informed of both required and recommended practices.

There will likely be preparations needed in the physical workplace that should be put in place before employees return. These will vary greatly by the type of business but may include moving workstations, posting signage, and providing easy access to sanitation supplies.

A return to work policy is mandated in some states, including Oregon; however, even where not required, employers should implement a clear policy regarding return to work procedures in our “new normal”. The policy should explain the organization’s commitment to cleaning and sanitizing the workplace, keeping employees safe, social distancing, teleworking plans, and any employee screening provisions.

As part of the preparation process, we recommend deploying an employee survey to gauge the workforce’s readiness to return. Getting a pulse on how your employees feel about remote work, occupancy, timelines, workplace safety, etc. will inform your reopening decisions and contribute to a smoother process that reduces unforeseen complications.

2. Recall Employees

Once your organization has assessed employee readiness and has all the proper procedures in place, the next step is to begin calling employees back to work. Companies are not required to call all employees back if current business conditions do not warrant pre-COVID staffing levels. If you are not bringing back your entire staff, it is important to consider what jobs will be needed for your current business requirements and recall employees based solely on their job duties. Avoid considering personal characteristics such as age, pregnancy, or the assumption that an employee has an underlying health condition. While this may be tempting due to the nature of the pandemic, these are protected classes that cannot legally be considered when making hiring or recall decisions.

If employees have been on furlough and not removed from the payroll, they will not need to go through the entire rehire process and do not require a new or updated Form I-9 to be completed. Employees who have been temporarily or permanently laid off will need to be formally rehired and go through all pre-employment processes including drug screening, background checks (if part of the standard process), new hire documentation, health benefits enrollment, and completing Form I-9.

As of May 1, 2020, employers must use the new Form I-9 which can be downloaded from the USCIS website. Document verification procedures have been temporarily relaxed to accommodate social distancing requirements under some circumstances but in-person verification will still be required within 3 days of when normal operations resume. This policy is currently extended until March 31, 2021.

3. Address Employee Personal Concerns

Understandably, some employees may be reluctant to return to the workplace. They may be concerned about childcare options or exposure to COVID-19; others may prefer lucrative unemployment benefits. Where possible, employers should think about flexible work arrangements such as staggering work shifts and continuing telecommuting options for employees. For employees who refuse to return where working remotely is not an option, employers should explore potential federal, state, and local leave of absence and accommodation laws under which the employee may be protected. Employees who refuse to return to work for a non-protected reason will generally lose their unemployment benefits.

4. Be Prepared for Change

As we’ve all heard, this pandemic is not over. Organizations should be equipped with plans for maintaining business continuity in the event of new outbreaks, government responses, or additional shutdowns. Employers should also have a plan in place to address COVID-19 exposure in the workplace and what to do if an employee tests positive for the virus. We have provided helpful guides on our blog to address safety precautions in the workplace and what to do when an employee appears to have symptoms of COVID-19. Managers should be prepared for business disruptions and organizations should have plans in place to cross-train or hire new employees to cover for those who refuse to return to work or for employee absences due to COVID-19 diagnosis, quarantine, or caring for someone with COVID-19.

As you know, there are a lot of moving pieces to manage the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace. As always, Trüpp is here to help! We’ve been keeping up on federal, state, and local regulations as they develop. If you need assistance with policies, recalling employees, administering FFCRA leave, or any other HR services, get in touch with us and put our HR compliance professional’s expertise to work for you.

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