Guidance on Preparing for the Workplace Return
Twitter, Bank of America, and numerous other organizations across the United States want workers back on-site by Labor Day.
This may be unwelcome news for the 40% of employees who prefer full-time remote work to an office environment and the 35% looking for a hybridized situation. But the 25% of Americans who want to return to full-time office work will no doubt greet this change with open arms. Still, our research shows that 39% of organizations are yet to finalize their return to work policy, so many workers will still have no idea what to expect once the pandemic is over.
However, any company that intends to bring its team back into the office on a full- or part-time basis has to follow specific rules to maintain a safe workplace. And you’re sure to have questions, such as what steps do you need to take when cleaning offices and providing sick pay? Find out in this comprehensive guide.
Maintaining Safety in the Workplace
The Occupational Safety and Health Act provides in-depth guidance on returning to work. The Act is essential reading for any business leader to avoid creating unnecessary risks and potential legal action that may follow.
The critical areas of adequate preparation include:
- Hazard assessment
- Social distancing
- Employee screening (asking questions about COVID symptoms and checking temperature)
Let’s take a closer look at each step.
Assess all tasks employees perform as part of their standard duties, such as working at their computer, servicing hardware, or interviewing job candidates. Roles that bring employees close to one another may need restructuring to remove unnecessary risk.
Another potential hazard is interacting with members of the public. Workers who met with clients regularly before the pandemic may be able to resume face-to-face interactions, provided they keep their distance, meet in a well-ventilated place, and possibly wear face masks.
Facilitating good hygiene in the workplace has always been vital, but never more than in a post-COVID-19 world.
Provide hand sanitizer in multiple locations throughout the workplace. It should contain 60% alcohol minimum and be replenished as required to ensure employees can clean their hands when unable to wash with soap and water.
Washing facilities with hot and cold water, antibacterial soap, and hand dryers/paper towels must be available. Encourage workers and visitors to wash their hands frequently, particularly when making contact with others or potentially contaminated surfaces. Wash thoroughly for 20 seconds or more.
Use EPA-registered disinfectants to clean surfaces or equipment touched by many people to reduce the potential danger of contamination.
The CDC advises that surfaces be cleaned at least once per day in workplaces with no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19. Provide any PPE required for use with cleaning substances too.
Social distancing rules will continue to change as more people are vaccinated, and the risk of contamination drops. But businesses should encourage employees to adhere to the CDC’s advice on social distancing to maximize safety: stay at least six feet away from people outside your household.
To meet the distancing rules, you may need to reconfigure your workplace to accommodate employees safely and bring only a small number of workers back if space is at a premium in your office. Ensure that employees have six feet or more between themselves and coworkers when seated at their desks.
Post signs to remind workers and visitors to keep their distance in communal areas, such as the kitchen or breakout spaces.
Screen employees screened before they return to work. This involves:
- Asking questions (e.g., have they or anyone in their household experienced symptoms within the previous two weeks?)
- Checking temperatures
- Encouraging employees to self-administer tests and follow isolation protocol if they have had a positive COVID test result
- Ascertaining whether employees have been vaccinated partly, fully, or not at all
Employee rights during the pandemic
Workers may refuse to return to work if they believe their workplace is unsafe and creates a real risk of contamination.
The OSHA Act’s General Duty Clause stipulates that employers provide workers with an environment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm”. States may also have additional requirements.
Employees may struggle to prove that an employer fails to accommodate them safely regarding COVID-19. Still, a lack of cleaning materials and social distancing could constitute a breach of the OSHA Act.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) is another crucial consideration when employees return to work. This dictates that anyone working for an employer with less than 500 employees can take two full weeks of paid sick leave if they:
- Have COVID-19
- Display symptoms of COVID-19
- Are quarantined by a doctor or the government
Employers cannot force workers to return to the office during these two weeks. Sick pay must also be paid at the employee’s standard rate.
The FFCRA stipulates that employees receive a maximum of 12 weeks paid leave at two-thirds of their standard pay if they cannot work (in-house or remotely) because they need to care for a child unable to attend a school or be with a care provider due to the coronavirus. Employees must have been with a company for at least 30 days to qualify.
Two weeks of paid sick leave at two-thirds of standard pay is also available for employees who must care for another adult in quarantine.
Can employees take legal action if they contract COVID-19 in the workplace?
In April 2020, the family of a Walmart worker sued the company for failing to protect employees from COVID-19 adequately. They highlighted a lack of:
- Social distancing enforcement
- Store sanitization
- PPE for workers
Other businesses have faced legal action on similar grounds too. However, the matter of liability is still rife with confusion.
In 2020, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce encouraged better protection for employers against negligence claims if they follow federal and local guidelines. This came in response to a wave of concern that lawsuits could cripple businesses if employees contract COVID-19 in the workplace.
However, employers are better placed to protect themselves if they can demonstrate the steps that have been taken to minimize spread and maintain worker safety. For example, evidence of office reorganization to keep employees six feet or more apart and ample hand-sanitizing stations may prove that a business took the risk of COVID-19 seriously.
Training employees to stay safe
The OSHA recommends that employers implement training to educate workers on the risks of COVID-19, symptoms to watch out for, and what level of exposure they may face as part of their work.
For example, teams that deal with members of the public daily should provide employees with any PPE necessary to reduce the threat of contamination (e.g., face shields, gloves, partitions between desks).
Providing PPE can help alleviate the anxiety that some workers may feel upon returning to their job after a prolonged period of working remotely or being furloughed. Signs should also be posted in the workplace to remind staff and customers/visitors to practice social distancing.
Workplaces in which employees only interact with one another should still train staff to behave responsibly. This includes:
- Drawing attention to hand-sanitizing stations
- Maintaining necessary distance
- Wearing face masks/shields
- Cleaning equipment or surfaces down to help protect others
- Where PPE is stored when required
Provide employees with the information they need before returning to work rather than overwhelming them with guidance on their first day back. Make resources available in the office at all times, though, so staff can refresh their knowledge as required.
You may host virtual training sessions when preparing workers to return. These should be tailored to the specifics of different roles, based on employees’ responsibilities.
You should also keep employees updated on the latest changes to federal and local regulations affecting their work. This applies to both tightening and loosening of restrictions.
Preparing to return to work can seem daunting for employers and employees alike. Leaving the home office and going back to “normal” may be an uncomfortable transition for some but a welcome one for others.
Employers should do all they can to help employees return to work in the safest, most efficient way. Study the OSHA’s guidance on hazard assessments, hygiene, social distancing, and employee screening to mitigate risks.
Understand your responsibilities as a business leader, whether that means providing workers with sick pay if they need to care for their child during school closures or running temperature checks responsibly.
Clear communication is paramount as you prepare to bring your workforce back into the office. Using tools like TINYpulse can transform your internal communication.
TINYpulse provides employees and managers with a centralized virtual environment to discuss tasks, issues, ideas, and more. You can also collect feedback to understand how employees feel about returning to work, safety processes in place, workloads, and other aspects of their role.