Small-business owners and corporate leaders alike find themselves in uncharted waters in dealing with the coronavirus. They have questions about how to contain the spread of the respiratory illness among their workforce and how to care for them if they do get sick. They are thinking about how to work with vendors and suppliers, and how to safely interact with the public. Many already are struggling to keep their doors open as consumer behavior shifts radically.
The Star Tribune spoke with two experts who are helping businesses prepare amid public health and economic uncertainty. Mike Droke is a labor and employment lawyer at Dorsey & Whitney’s office in Seattle, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Sharon Scharf is a vice president at Cobb, Strecker, Dunphy & Zimmerman (CSDZ) in Minneapolis. It helps businesses manage risk.
Here are some of their top tips.
Make a plan
DROKE: A plan helps you know you didn’t miss something. When working under stress you miss things. It’s difficult, but two things are required. First, businesses and executives must stop and pause and think calmly. The second is to project in time: Look at what happened in Seattle, Silicon Valley and New Rochelle. Wise companies are doing that kind of contingency planning. As a business owner, you might say: we’re going to deal with what’s happening now. You two people? Give us a plan for in two weeks. I’ll keep you out of what you are doing now.
SCHARF: This goes beyond what most people’s plans are for a snowstorm or if the building burns down. It’s not a bad place to start and to look at how that correlates to the current situation. How did you communicate with employees when a snowstorm closed down the building? Businesses now have to “up” that because we have a situation that we don’t know when it’s going to end or how it’s going to impact us directly. We know with a snowstorm that two days from now we’ll be back up and running.
Communicate often, clearly
SCHARF: The biggest question I get is what should we be doing and how should we be communicating. So, how are you going to communicate if you have to shut down your business and don’t want anybody to show up? Do you have an automatic alert system? Are you telling employees to check their voice mail? Also what is the communication plan with business associates such as your suppliers? You should have a consistent message, and a consistent individual or individuals communicating that. You are centralizing that so that the message is consistent across all stakeholders, so people don’t hear different things from different bosses.
Review Family and Medical Leave Act rules and sick leave policies
DROKE: Nothing requires you to have a sick-leave program, but you could have temporary program for a burst of time. Think about actual protection of employees coming to work as well as the perception that your employees have: that you are taking steps to make sure they’re safe. In this way, people who are not ill can be confident that their employer is really encouraging people to keep illnesses at home.
SCHARF: It’s OK to change sick-leave policies, as some companies are doing now by paying people if they need to take two weeks quarantine. The risk would be if you don’t treat everyone equally. [Federal law mandates that any flexible leave policies must be administered in a manner that does not discriminate against employees because of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, disability or veteran status.]
Recognize vast gray areas in the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
DROKE: The question we’re being asked repeatedly now: Is it permissible to do a temperature check of an employee? In normal standards, not without some factual basis because it would be a medical examination. With the swine-flu epidemic, the EEOC said if conditions were more severe than the standard seasonal flu or if it was declared a pandemic, then you could do a temperature check. We don’t have that declaration on the federal side. But employers are looking at that carefully. The reported rate of transmission and death is higher than standard flu. There’s also just a practical balancing. If you have a situation where you are at risk of losing a large percentage of your workforce, then that operational risk is taken into account in what you decide to do.
Plan for a confirmed case in an employee or visitor
DROKE: You have to know that now, so that when — not if — that happens, you don’t have to think about it. It gives you ability to plan before the storm. It is the truth that no plan survives the first bullet in war. That doesn’t mean you don’t plan. You can adjust as needed.
SCHARF: You also must make sure you respond while also protecting the rights of the individual employee. It’s one of the challenges … because this is contagious and you have an obligation to those who might also have been impacted so they can take precautions.