While large corporations can afford to extend reopening timelines, smaller businesses need to rely on prevention, monitoring, and responding to a resurgence of COVID-19 in the workplace for the foreseeable future.
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While many businesses and their employees are eager to return to a sense of normalcy and resume in-office operations, industries across the U.S. continue to face a host of unknowns in the workplace as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The New York Times recently announced that large corporations such as Microsoft, Ford, and Google have tentatively extended their return-to-office date to July 2021 to keep workers safe. Many employers are following suit and intend to take a slow, phased-in approach to reopening their businesses and workplaces amid the pandemic, according to a survey by the global commercial real estate giant, Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis (CBRE). The survey polled more than 1,500 C-suite executives, vice presidents, and senior managers, representing a cross-section of industries within the U.S. 35% of the respondents declared their reopening date is still unknown, while 39% plan to reopen by the first quarter of 2021.
Large corporations are making timeline decisions based on a myriad of factors, including observations about competitors, customer and employee surveys, behavior trend analysis, and social media activity. The Wall Street Journal indicated that Google utilized the expertise of consulting firms and epidemiologists to help gather and interpret information about COVID-19’s effects on the public.
These firms with large workforces can afford to extend their reopening timelines with the use of intricate data analytics. However, smaller businesses may not be as fortunate and will need to rely on implementing policies and procedures to manage prevention, monitoring, and response to an emergence or resurgence of COVID-19 in the workplace for the foreseeable future.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) new guidance suggests a multi-phase approach to reopening workplaces:
PHASE 1 | Employers should make telework available to employees.
Accommodations for employees who return to the workplace should be made wherever possible, including:
- Limiting the number of people in the workplace to maintain strict social distancing
- Making accommodations for employees at higher risk (i.e. employees with pre-existing, serious conditions, and elderly employees)
- Consider extending special accommodations to employees with household members at higher risk
- Limiting non-essential business travel
PHASE 2 | Employers should continue to make telework available to employees where possible, but non-essential business travel may resume.
Consider additional relaxed restrictions, including:
- Easing limits on the number of people in the workplace while maintaining moderate to strict social distancing practices
- Accommodating vulnerable workers (i.e. employees with pre-existing, serious conditions, and elderly employees)
PHASE 3 | Businesses resume unrestricted operations on work sites.
For each of these phases, employers should implement, and require employees to follow, these guidance standards:
HAZARD ASSESSMENT | Employers should conduct a hazard assessment that takes into consideration worker exposure from job tasks, including interactions with the general public.
HYGIENE | Employers should maintain a hygienic workplace environment by implementing strict basic hygiene requirements for employees and visitors by increasing availability of hand-washing stations or providing hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
SOCIAL DISTANCING | Employers should create workplace accommodations that allow for and encourage social distancing.
IDENTIFICATION AND ISOLATION OF SICK EMPLOYEES | Employers should consider asking employees to evaluate themselves for COVID-19 exposures and symptoms. A safety procedure should be established to allow employees to stay isolated if immediate departure is not possible.
CONTROLS | To ensure the workplace is in compliance with the General Duty Clause, employers may need to create barriers between workers and provide increased ventilation for respiratory protection.
EMPLOYEE TRAINING | Employers should implement training for employees on the signs, symptoms, and risk factors associated with COVID-19 and how to prevent the spread within the workplace, including education on the importance of personal protective equipment.
In the face of prolific uncertainty, clear guidance and support from legislative safeguards are critical to providing employers with sufficient confidence to reopen their workplaces. Businesses preparing to reopen on-site locations to employees have been aggressively working with third party vendors for assistance, including entrance screening and recurring COVID-19 testing services. The ambiguity of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on employers combined with the ever-changing healthcare landscape have emphasized the importance for businesses to lean on their benefits broker for guidance.