reviewing a digital handbookThe COVID-19 pandemic has altered our daily lives — particularly in the workplace. When drastic changes occur that impact day-to-day protocols, it’s wise for employers to update their employee handbooks. Handbooks not only protect employers; they also help set clear expectations to ensure all employees are aware of their duties and responsibilities under various scenarios. Workplace changes in the time of COVID-19 have led to many questions, and handbook updates are one of the best ways your company can answer employees’ questions.

Some of the primary policies you will need to review are:

    • Local, state, and federal laws regarding COVID-19,
    • Changes to paid time off and leave requests,
    • Telecommuting policies, and
    • Workplace health and safety policies.

If you think it’s time to update your company’s employee handbook, the attorneys in our corporate group might be able to help. Feel free to contact us for more information.

Local, State, and Federal Laws Regarding COVID-19

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) made changes to FMLA leave rules and required some employers to provide emergency paid sick leave to employees affected by COVID-19. While the FFCRA does not mandate employers to provide COVID-19 related leave after December 31, 2020, it allows covered employers to voluntarily provide qualified paid leave to their employees to receive a tax credit for such wages through March 31,2021. It is important to update employee handbooks to reflect available leave and train employees on their rights under the Act.

Paid Time Off and Vacation Policies

In addition to complying with the law, many employers are faced with financial struggles that may change their existing time-off policies. Some employers are requiring employees take a minimum number of days off within one calendar year, while others are forced to restrict leave. If any of your leave policies have been altered due to the pandemic, (and its economic consequences) you should ensure they are reflected clearly in an updated employee handbook.

Telecommuting Policies

Remote work is an excellent way to reduce the risks of spreading COVID-19 in certain industries. If your business is in a position to offer telecommuting opportunities, it is imperative to clearly state telecommuting rules and policies in writing to ensure employee compliance in order to maintain high levels of productivity. It is also wise to have policies related to employee use of company equipment and/or property while working remotely, including policies related to return of property upon termination of employment.

Workplace Health & Safety Policies

Some of the most extensive (and important) updates to employee policies involve workplace health and safety. The CDC, FDA, and OSHA have all created guidance documents that answer employers’ most frequently asked questions about health and safety in the midst of this pandemic.

Some of the most frequently asked questions about workplace health and safety are:

    • What can I tell employees about reducing the spread of COVID-19?
    • What should I do if an employee tests positive or shows symptoms of COVID-19?
    • What should I do if an employee has been exposed to COVID-19 but doesn’t show symptoms?
    • What am I allowed to tell my employees when someone in my office has tested positive for COVID-19 without violating my employee’s right to privacy?
    • Do I have a duty to perform contact tracing when an employee has tested positive for COVID-19?

Reducing the Spread of COVID-19

Every employer should exercise caution to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, for the sake of both employees and customers. This will involve the implementation of, and strict adherence to, additional policies designed to maintain social distancing and workplace hygiene.

The CDC recommends that everyone practice social distancing by keeping at least 6 feet away from others, urges people to wear a mask or cloth face covering when around others who are not members of your household, and advises that washing hands frequently can all help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Employees should also be instructed to avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth and minimize direct physical contact with other people, cash, credit cards, and other high-touch surfaces.

It is also strongly advised that employees avoid non-essential travel. If travel cannot be avoided, it may be wise to implement a quarantine policy or require a negative COVID-19 test result before allowing an employee to return to the workplace.

Create Clear Protocols and Procedures in Your Handbook for Employee Exposure and Illness

In addition to workplace safety, continuity of operations is at the forefront of most employers’ minds. Depending on the size of your business, you may consider appointing a COVID-19 workplace coordinator to be the “go-to” guide for employees who have health questions and concerns. This coordinator can be responsible for identifying COVID-19 risks and prevention strategies. This person would also be an ideal trainer to ensure all employees know about the handbook changes and best practices for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Employee handbooks should have very clear guidelines instructing employees to stay at home when they are exhibiting symptoms of or have been exposed to COVID-19. Employee handbooks should also include quarantining/self-isolation timelines and precise procedures for returning to work after illness or exposure. Employees who experience symptoms of COVID-19 while at the workplace should be required to notify their supervisor and should be sent home immediately. If an employee experiences symptoms before the employee arrives at work, the employee should be instructed to stay home. If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, they should not return to work until they meet all the criteria to end home isolation.

Employers should also implement daily cleaning and disinfecting protocols, along with procedures for disinfection of an infected employee’s work area. Employee handbooks should include a description of cleaning and disinfection procedures to reassure employees and also to inform an infected employee of his or her responsibilities in the event that they become symptomatic at the office.

The employer, or workplace coordinator, if appointed, should interview any employee who contracts COVID-19 to identify other employees who may have been exposed.

If you confirm that an employee has been infected, you should notify other employees about their possible exposure to the virus without naming the infected employee. Maintaining the infected employee’s confidentiality is a requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Naturally, you should be prepared for the exposed employees to have questions. The CDC has provided a guidance document for community-related exposure that can be shared with any exposed employees.

These Handbook Recommendations Are Just the Beginning

The scale of the COVID-19 pandemic is staggering, and not every employment-related question can be answered in a short blog post. While we have taken extra care to answer some of the most common questions, every employer will need to update their Employee Handbooks in different ways depending on their own unique needs.

If you would like to learn more about how to protect your employees (and your business) in the age of COVID-19, contact our office for more information. Our experienced business attorneys are happy to help you draft a custom Employee Handbook that complies with changing laws, while ensuring smooth operation for the months to come.