Gotcha Covered HR Answers Your COVID-19 Business Questions
NEW ORLEANS – “Uncertain” has become an appropriate descriptor for the COVID-19 world pandemic. This uncertainty applies to business owners and managers as they navigate uncharted territory when it comes to human resources procedures. Gotcha Covered HR, a New Orleans-based, women-owned business that provides HR and employment law expertise to local companies, shares some answers to frequently asked questions in the wake of a world pandemic.
NOTE: The COVID-19 situation and response are rapidly changing. Information and links included here may be updated in the coming days and weeks.
My business provides an essential service, so we are remaining open. I have an employee who I suspect may have COVID-19. What should I do?
Employers are walking a fine line right now between respecting employees’ medical privacy and maintaining the overall health of the workplace. HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) generally dictates that employers keep medical information confidential. However, medical information may be disclosed to authorized personnel on a need to know basis if there is a serious or imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public. Never has that threat been more real than in the face of COVID-19.
The CDC recommends that employers strongly encourage anyone with symptoms of illness to stay home. If an employee reports to work with symptoms of COVID-19, the CDC recommends immediately separating the employee from other employees, customers, and visitors, and sending the employee home.
If the employee is confirmed to have COVID-19 infection, employers must notify fellow employees of their possible exposure, being careful to maintain medical confidentiality and protect the identity of the employee.
My business was forced to shut down temporarily. I want to keep my employees when we are able to re-open, but I can’t afford to pay them in the meantime. What can I do?
Employers have a number of options, but careful consideration should be given to the new FFCRA and CARES Act (see more information on each below). Employers can choose to furlough employees, which keeps them as active employees with benefits, assuming they will re-open at a later date.
Employers could also decide to lay off employees. They would not maintain benefits, and the employer would not be obligated to employ them when the business reopens. Releasing them from employment means there may be a greater risk of losing employees to other employers when businesses reopen.
Employers can direct workers to the Louisiana Workforce Commission for information on unemployment to bridge the gap during a temporary shutdown.
My employees have all been able to do remote work during this time, but some people aren’t working as hard as others. Can I still manage employee performance and make employment decisions based on telecommuting work?
The difficulty with moving all employees to remote work is that it assumes so many things: that all employees have access to internet, a home computer (if a company laptop isn’t provided), printers, software, a healthy household, even a quiet space to work (we know you’re feeling this, parents of school-aged children).
For this reason, basing employee performance off of remote work can be hard to do, especially when comparing employees to their peers who may have vastly different circumstances at home.
Here are some of our recommendations for managers of remote workers:
- Set clear and constant communication to all employees about your expectations of their work, and what tools they can use to communicate (video conferencing, instant message, etc.). Do you still want your employees to be signed on to work the same hours as they would in the office? Tell them that directly, and in writing.
- Make sure that each employee has what he/she needs to meet these expectations. If they don’t, try to find a way together to bridge any gaps.
- If your employees are telling you they have everything they need, but they still aren’t meeting your clear expectations, be clear about the performance gaps and document the gaps in case employment action has to take place.
My company has a paid sick time policy that pays people for up to five days. Can I extend that paid time if someone has COVID-19?
What we want to stress here, and in any area of HR policy, is the importance of consistency. We not only recommend but commend a paid sick policy that’s adapted to those who’ve been impacted by COVID-19. It ensures that sick employees don’t feel compelled to show up to work just to be paid.
However, offering extended paid sick time to “Employee A” but not “Employee B” is risky. Anytime a policy is not consistently applied, there should be a justifiable reason for doing so. As much as possible, outline these exceptions or special circumstances in your HR policies, making it clear why a person in Employee A’s situation would get the leave time, but Employee B doesn’t.
First there was FFCRA, now CARES – How does all of this impact my business?
Yes, we understand there’s a tremendous amount of information in both of these acts. We’re happy to support individual questions and circumstances, but here’s a quick overview.
The FFCRA, or Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201) put into motion several components that employers need to be aware of. If your business has fewer than 500 employees, or you are a public agency with at least 1 employee, FFCRA applies to you.
FFCRA has multiple impacts, but among them are:
- Pay for employees who are unable to work or telework due to the closure of a child’s childcare facility or school;
- Paid sick leave for employees who are unable to work or telework due to COVID-19;
- Health insurance costs for employees impacted by COVID-19; and
- Tax credits for paid sick leave and paid FMLA under the expanded act.
Some exceptions are being made. Employees of health care providers or first responders can be excluded from paid sick time and expanded FMLA. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees may also be excluded if paying employees would result in failure of the business. And small employers with fewer than 25 are not obligated to reinstate employees if the position has been eliminated due to economic conditions caused by COVID-19.
The CARES Act, or Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act creates new programs to help both businesses and workers.
For employers, the CARES Act offers the Paycheck Protection program, a new loan program designed to help small (under 500 employees) employers pay their payroll expenses during COVID-19.
The act also creates a direct lending program, emergency loans, and special assistance funding for U.S. businesses in many sectors, including key industries such as a airline industry, and mid-sized businesses (500-10,000 employees).
Special business tax credits and deferral of payroll taxes are also included in the CARES Act, as well as well as immediate tax credits for those on FFCRA leave.
My employees are all really stressed right now! What can I do to help them?
First of all, thank you for thinking about the wellbeing of your employees. This is not only a concerning time with regard to physical health, but also mental health as we all navigate rapidly changing circumstances. We encourage all managers to check in with their employees. Your empathy goes a long way at such a stressful time.
In addition to support from leadership and internal company resources, there are many options for maintaining employee wellbeing through this uncertain time. These are a few resources devoted just to mental health and COVID-19:
- S. Department of Health and SAMHSA Disaster Distress Hotline.
- The Louisiana Department of Health has offered a Keep Calm line.
- City of New Orleans Behavioral Health Crisis Support.
In addition to the local, state, and national resources offered, many health care providers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that can be tapped into for mental health support. Look into whether your own insurance providers offer this benefit or other telehealth medical support for mental wellbeing. Communicate this information to all employees so anyone who needs help may have the resources they need at the ready.
As managers and employers, you shoulder the burden for not only your own health and safety, but the safety of all your employees. We are here to support you through the process.
By Julie Ellison Graham, MBA, SPHR, senior HR consultant at Gotcha Covered HR, LLC