More and more employees are heading back to the office, which can be a source of anxiety for business owners juggling new protocols and safety measures. We’ve compiled a list of things you can consider before inviting employees back to their desks.
Things are looking up in this unusual summer as the June jobs report exceeded expectations with 850,000 jobs added last month. Additionally, people are beginning to travel again, having those long-awaited family reunions, and finally heading back to the office. After a year and a half of many working from home, there's still mixed feelings about the return to desks, business attire, commutes, and office life. Some employers have adapted to find safe ways for employees to return to work, others give employees the choice, but some employees remain at home full-time. That's likely changing, as many people miss socializing with coworkers and having a space dedicated for work, away from the house and family. Before allowing employees back to their desks, employers need to take some extra measures to ensure safety and to protect the company from liabilities.
For those employers hoping to get employees back to the office at least a few days a week, it may be a good idea to consider some legal changes and extra safety measures before bringing people back in. Covid-19 safety regulations differ by state, but the Biden administration has put workplace safety high on its priority list. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has received well over 10,000 Covid-19 related workplace safety complaints during the pandemic, and President Biden issued an Executive Order to increase OSHA enforcement efforts in January 2021. Other legislation aims to benefit employers who kept their workforce on the payroll during difficult times with the extended the Employee Retention Credit, which we discussed in detail in a previous blog post. Some states, namely New York state, have implemented legislation with requirements for employers. The HERO Act requires private employers to establish an infectious disease plan by adopting a model standard created by the Department of Labor, or an alternative plan that is equal to or exceeds the model standard. It authorizes the Department of Labor and the New York State Attorney General to enforce the standard and it must be distributed to employees in writing. Other states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Texas, and Virginia have at least tried to pass or have passed bills regarding paid sick leave, retirement plans, workers compensation, and employment benefits after Covid-19. Not every state will likely create its own legislation for employers to follow as they reopen the office or workspace, but employers should put in their own due diligence and follow CDC recommendations to avoid liabilities. You can check your state's covid action on the National Conference of State Legislature's website.
Employers should consider updating their employee handbooks with pandemic protocols. Employers can include information requiring all employees to follow all protocols for their individual jobs, and to report safety and health hazards, accidents, injuries, and illnesses as soon as possible. Employers should include details of each employee's job duties, and the reporting procedure for health and safety issues. It may be useful to include a non-retaliation clause as well. It's also important to keep up with the National Labor Board's rulemakings and updates to ensure handbooks comply, especially with the change in presidential administration. Employers could also add the steps employees should take in case of illness or Covid-19 symptoms and paid sick leave policies. While there has been an influx of temporary laws that provide aid during the pandemic, employers should refrain from adding the legislation to their permanent employee handbooks to avoid the burden of updating the book every time the laws change or expire.
While some employees miss the collegial work environment, others are not so psyched about going back in-person. Working remotely promotes flexibility in the workplace and in schedules, allows people to spend more time with their families, and allows employees to get work done anywhere they please. Some workplaces may never go back entirely in-person and remote work will always remain an option. In this case, it's important for employers to track wages, hours, and productivity to avoid issues down the road. Employers should require employees to accurately report all their hours, and they should track overtime and even set strict overtime standards if applicable to the job to avoid employment litigation claims. Remote work policies should be reflected in the employee handbook as well. It may help to add stricter start times, break times, and end times to the workday to avoid confusion for non-salaried employees. Employers may consider adding procedures on how to report wage or hour complaints and how the complaints will be handled to their employee handbooks as extra protection.
As the real estate market took off during the pandemic, many people decided it was the perfect time to buy a new house or even relocate to a new state. This is also cause for concern for various wage issues that arise as employees switched states while remaining at their same job. There could be different minimum wage requirements and laws concerning breaks, paid sick leave, paid time off, etc. in other states that employers must be aware of and comply with. It's also a good idea to be familiar with the requirements of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act as some pieces of the legislation changed at the end of 2020.
Vaccine Records and Requirements
As more of the vaccines providers proceed with the FDA approval application there's an expectation that more employers will require the vaccine to return to work, which also introduces potential pushback and legal issues. It is generally legal to require the vaccine before employees may return to the office, but employers should practice safe storage of employee vaccine information. Store employee vaccine records separate from employee records and instead with employee's confidential health information. Employers must keep records for at least one year and one year after termination of an employee. Breach of employee records could result in ADA claims for confidentiality, so it is important employers follow proper protection protocol. It may be beneficial to add the employee record protection protocols to employee handbooks. To further reduce liability for holding employee confidential information, employers may switch from vaccine mandate to recommendation or honor code policy instead.
Going back to the office may not be ideal for all, but for those missing the comraderies of working in-person it will be a much-needed change from the sometimes-isolating work-from-home lifestyle. Heading back to the office also helps employers and managers better monitor productivity and hours, in addition to easier access to technology, supplies, and tech support for employees. While it may come at a small cost and some extra protocols, resuming those water cooler conversations and life at the office can be a big benefit for both employees and employers alike.
If you are unsure of how these back-to-work concerns impact your business contact us today! We love working with companies to learn their unique situations and how we can help navigate potential legal scenarios.