As we reach the one-year anniversary of the global pandemic’s start, many businesses have settled into a routine that has changed their business framework. It is crucial to reflect on how this new framework impacts your Human Resources program. What is your workplace’s current status in a world that requires a heavier reliance on technology? Will some or all of your employees continue to work remotely? If you have brought employees back to the workplace, you most likely have requirements in place to maintain social distancing and mask-wearing to keep employees safe. Every business is unique and has been affected differently; however, the pandemic has left most HR programs venerable. Let us explore how your organization can cover the gaps that may have been created by the events of the last year.

Exposure Risks and Workplace Controls

Employers and employees alike are concerned about the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace. If your organization has employees working on-site, an infectious disease policy is crucial to communicating an employer’s plan of action during an infectious disease outbreak or pandemic. A comprehensive policy informs employees of the measures to be taken by the organization, including sending sick employees home and implementing workplace controls. This policy serves to educate employees on protecting themselves from the spread of infectious disease, including exercising social distancing, washing hands, and wearing a mask.

In addition to implementing an infectious disease policy, employers should be following federal, state, and local health and safety guidance. OSHA has released Guidance on Returning to Work, a publication that includes guidelines to assist employers in reopening non-essential businesses and their employees returning to work during the pandemic. On January 29, 2021, OSHA released Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace to help employers identify risks of exposure or contracting COVID-19 in the workplace settings and to determine any appropriate control measures to implement.

Employers should also be aware that several states have issued rules and regulations specific to promoting safety during the pandemic. If an organization is operating in states like California, Michigan, Minnesota, and Oregon, there are requirements to have COVID-19 preparedness plans in place or training requirements, among other things.

Leave Laws Related to COVID-19

Covered employers may be required to provide employees job-protected leave based on federal, state, or local laws. In some instances, paid sick leave or family leave to eligible workers for COVID-19 related reasons.

At the federal level, even though the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) expired on December 31, 2020, employers can still voluntarily provide paid expanded family and medical leave and emergency paid sick leave through March 31, 2021. There may also be further federal requirements from upcoming legislative relief bills that employers should be monitoring.

Many states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon, have specific requirements around access to paid sick leave or job-protected leave for reasons related to COVID-19.

COVID-19 Vaccinations

As COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out across the country, employers will face how they would like to address their employees’ vaccination. Whether an employer is looking to require, encourage, or remain silent on the issue, there are several factors an employer should consider.

The EEOC has provided guidance that employers can mandate that all employees get vaccinated. If an organization requires the vaccine, they need to communicate how the requirements are job-related and consistent with business necessity. There should also be a written policy in place with the vaccination requirements. Employers should allow for accommodations for disabilities and religious purposes and document engaging in the interactive process if needed.

If the vaccine is required, the employer could be responsible for the vaccine’s cost and remember that the time an employee spends getting vaccinated will be subject to wage and hour laws. An employer requiring vaccination may be subject to a worker’s compensation claim if an employee has an adverse reaction.

Other employers may want to encourage their employees to get vaccinated but not require it. While it may be tempting for employers to incentive their employees by offering a cash or Health Savings Account bonus for getting vaccinated, there could be potential payroll tax consequences. Instead, employers could offer to compensate an employee’s time for getting vaccinated as a form of encouragement.

Employee Engagement with a Remote Team

Organizations that have employees working remotely, whether temporarily or permanently, should ensure that employees are engaged with the company. Conducting regular employee engagement surveys creates a baseline that can be measured over time and reveal potential problems before they escalate. Employers can conduct exit interviews with voluntarily separating employees to obtain feedback on why the employee is leaving and improvements the employer can make to retain employees.

Team members working remotely may feel an increased sense of isolation, resulting in decreased engagement. Providing benefits like access to an Employee Assistance Program give resources to employees who may need support. It is also helpful to ensure that employees have a neutral third-party, such as a member of the HR program team, to report to with any concerns they may have.

Despite the challenges organizations face, being proactive is your best tool to prevent complications. If we learned anything from March 2020, addressing a crisis after it has occurred is costly. Consider putting policies, retention strategies, and compliance measures in place to ensure a smooth transition to your new business framework and ensure you have all the bases covered. If you’ve lost valuable HR expertise, it is an excellent time to consider how you will fill the gaps. It may be a good option to hire an HR consultant to review your HR program and ensure it aligns with your current practices and covers all the bases.

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