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At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be time to alter the phrase “business as usual” to “business as unusual” — especially if your employees have yet to return to the office. As you navigate the challenges of your return-to-work (RTW) transition, consider these tips to make your path a little smoother.  

Tackle emotional challenges head on

Change is hard, and most of your employees have never experienced change quite like the COVID-19 pandemic. Acknowledge those concerns before, during, and after the RTW transition. Certain employees might fear for their personal health when sharing indoor space with colleagues. Some might be afraid of losing the flexibility of remote work. Furthermore, others might be hesitant simply because RTW is another big transition amid a sea of change. To help employees adjust to the idea of RTW, try to provide at least 30 days’ notice before coming back to the office.

Even before a date has been set, prioritize communications about your safety plans. Include details on temporary or permanent changes to workplace settings and guidelines. Consider creating a “day in the life” email that explains changes to the workplace. Include items like entrance and exit protocols, mask requirements, office layouts, cleaning practices, and potential restrictions to shared spaces.

Provide supervisors with talking points so they are ready when employees turn to them for information. As an organization, share the business reasons for returning to the office. Employees are more likely to get on board when they understand the financial importance of RTW. The best way to make this happen is to make them feel like part of a team effort.

Throughout the RTW transition, send reminders of employee benefits that can help them cope with the change. These can range from big-ticket items such as health insurance, paid time off, flexible work schedules, and employee assistance programs. You should also include targeted offerings like cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga classes, mindfulness training, virtual counseling sessions, and mental health education.

Consider the physical aspects of the workplace

Another major consideration regarding RTW is change in the work environment. Some of these changes may include adding cleaning measures or standards for housekeeping staff; offering disinfectant wipes around high-contact surfaces; maintaining or upgrading ventilation systems; and accounting for social distancing among employees and clients.

Distancing measures could mean changing entire office layouts, such as adding barriers to an open concept environment. Other physical considerations include screening tools like temperature checks and providing masks or face shields if required.

Communicate these changes before employees return so they know what to expect on their first day back. Throughout the office, you may want to put up signage outlining new procedures like traffic flow and elevator usage. In addition, posters can be a visually appealing way to remind employees about covering coughs, monitoring symptoms, reporting illnesses, and other important safety measures.

Continue adhering to compliance requirements

Not even COVID-19 can change the importance of maintaining your legal duties. As the pandemic evolves, so should your compliance response. Please reference the California Department of Public Health, CalOSHA, and local health departments in addition to CDC and EEOC. These agencies can help you improve your RTW plan and assess it for compliance. They are especially useful as it pertains to mask requirements, vaccines, limits on indoor gatherings, and other issues that can fall under the purview of government regulations.

If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to formalize remote work with written guidelines and expectations for employees. Examples include work hours, home office standards, data protection, and cybersecurity requirements. Additionally, set standards for unexpected disruptions to remote capabilities, and required participation for in-person events or conferences. Clearly state that you have the right to modify or discontinue any policy.

Take your particular workforce into account to make sure eligibility for remote work is not discriminatory based on age, race, gender, or other protected characteristics. If you have nonexempt employees as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act, craft your policies to avoid situations that could give rise to unpaid work or overtime claims.

As with the emotional and physical facets of RTW, communication is vital to your compliance efforts. Let employees know you are following requirements from credible sources, and assure them that they are not subject to retaliation for talking about their COVID-19 concerns.

These days may not be business as usual, but consistently adhering to compliance standards and prioritizing employee well-being are still the best ways to navigate RTW challenges. For more ideas on safety and protection, talk to your broker or adviser.

Copyright © 2021 Applied Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

Resources

CDC Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Cal/OSHA COVID-19 Guidance and Resources

OSHA Guidance on Returning to Work

EEOC COVID-19 Resources

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Employer Exposures From Vaccination Mandates by Applied Systems. With COVID-19 vaccinations now widely available, employers are considering the pros and cons of mandatory inoculation for employees. While it may seem like a fully vaccinated workforce would decrease your risks, a vaccine mandate could open your company up to new risks, complaints and unexpected – or uninsured – legal defense costs.

Both workers’ compensation and employment practices liability issues may crop up. Depending on the terms of your insurance policies, the decision to offer or require COVID-19 vaccinations could be a two-edged sword – and your company could face harm either way you go. It’s important that management (and your board, if you have one) consider both options: mandating and not mandating vaccinations for employees.

No mandate: Employees can decide

While many employers are planning to offer vaccinations at work and/or cover the costs of vaccination, they are not mandating the shots.

This course of action gives employees control over the decision, though it could open employers up to complaints (from employees and customers alike) that the workplace isn’t as safe as it could be. While many states have executive orders or laws that protect companies from being found liable for the spread of the illness if they practice government guidelines on sanitation, they might not preclude the possibility of lawsuits. Many insurers are excluding coverage for pandemic-related liability complaints, so it’s important to understand how your policies would cover your legal defense costs if you were to be sued.

An employer that doesn’t mandate vaccines for all employees may also have employees who refuse to return to work, citing fear of the virus. Many people, even if they themselves are vaccinated, worry about picking up the virus at work and passing it along to others who are unvaccinated. Alternately, some people who cannot get vaccinated for medical or other reasons may feel more secure if nearly everyone else at work has gotten their shots.

You will need to weigh these concerns and develop thoughtful responses. Education on how vaccines work and on how to prevent transmission may assuage a lot of fears. You might also consider offering cost coverage for employees’ family members to be vaccinated. That could allay concerns over transporting the virus via a nonvaccinated co-worker.

Remember that workers’ compensation insurance typically excludes contraction of communicable diseases that are not directly caused by an employee’s job duties. Workers who opt not to get vaccinated and then get COVID-19 – even if at work – would not be covered for lost income or treatments under a workers’ comp policy unless they are in one of the few industries with mandatory coverage in some states.

Mandate: Employees must get vaccinated

With all that said, it would appear that mandating vaccinations as a condition of employment – or at least as a condition of returning to the workplace or normal work duties – could be a good option. But vaccine mandates are fraught with risk exposures.

The first, biggest concern is employee refusal to participate. There are many reasons an employee might decline vaccination, and some of those are protected by law. If a refusal is covered under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)equal , a religious exemption, or some other right to decline, you must be ready to work with the employee to find a reasonable accommodation. For more information, check out the guidance materials from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Another worry is that an employee who does comply might be injured by the vaccine. If that injury is severe, would the employee be covered for treatment and lost wages under workers’ compensation or any other company liability policy? You should discuss all of the angles with your insurance professional before issuing any mandates.

You should also develop a policy that deals with prior immunity. For example, an employee may refuse the vaccination and demand instead that they be permitted to demonstrate the existence of antibodies. Will this be acceptable? If so, who will pay for the test? How will this be recorded in your log of vaccinations? How will you work around the fact that it’s not yet known how long immunity (whether from vaccination or prior infection) lasts?

If you implement a vaccination mandate, you must be prepared for the administrative burden of recordkeeping, confidentiality, exemptions, changes of law or regulation, leave and pay policy for those claiming an adverse reaction, reporting to local immunization registries (if your vaccination provider does not take up this responsibility), follow-up for adverse events, follow-up for boosters or second doses, and accommodations for those who cannot or will not get vaccinated.

Consider how an employee will demonstrate either full vaccination or prior immunity. Will you accept paper documentation? Electronic? How will you verify the authenticity of paper documents? How will you keep these records? Who will have access to them? What if an employee who has provided proof of vaccination or immunity gets COVID-19 anyway? What are your plans for new strains of the virus?

Uniform enforcement and thorough documentation of a vaccination mandate are complicated but imperative, and clear communication of all aspects of your policy to all employees is necessary. That includes exemptions, accommodations and privacy protocols.

If you are requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, there is a good case to be made that you should pay for it in full, including pay for the time it takes to get the shots. If your workforce is unionized, you may need to work with union representatives regarding your mandate.

Data challenges

While some employers have long required influenza vaccinations for employees, the practice is not widespread outside the health care industry, and most employees have not previously been required to get vaccinated for anything. A new mandate, especially in light of an anti-vaccination media campaign, might generate pushback.

Employers should be prepared with data to back up their mandate; otherwise, employees may successfully challenge a requirement as unnecessary, unvetted or potentially dangerous.

Supporting a vaccination mandate using current data will be difficult for a variety of reasons, so engaging a health expert with specific knowledge on COVID-19 may be your best way to respond to naysayers. Current data on the vaccine are based on short-term clinical trials that have not established the duration of immunity. Additional data and research continue to accumulate, so employers might wish to wait for more information before instituting a mandate.

It is also important to integrate the various vaccines’ date-to-immunity data into your return-to-work plans. Immunity to COVID-19 isn’t acquired upon the first dose and isn’t immediate upon the second. It is crucial for employers to understand which version of the vaccine is being used and the delay in acquired immunity. If inoculated workers come back to normal duties before the vaccine takes effect, they may well contract and transmit the virus.

Finally, keep in mind that no vaccine is 100% effective, even if all proper administration protocols are followed. A small percentage of people who are properly vaccinated will wind up getting COVID anyway. 

Consider your options carefully

Obviously, this is a complicated decision with lots of factors to consider. Take your time and carefully research the implications for your company’s liability potential and your insurance coverage. Your insurance professional is an invaluable resource as you weigh the pros and cons of a COVID vaccine mandate.

This content is for informational purposes only, should not be considered professional, financial, medical or legal advice, and no representations or warranties are made regarding its accuracy, timeliness or currency. With all information, consult with appropriate licensed professionals to determine if implementing any recommendations would be in accordance with applicable laws and regulations or to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.

Copyright © 2021 Applied Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Resources

California Immunization Registry: COVID-19 Vaccine Reporting Information and Resources

CalNonprofits Insurance Services COVID-19 Resources and Updates