Companies need a clear COVID-19 policy to manage worries and expectations

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Reopening plans need to address masks, temperature checks, and health data collection and meet state and local requirements.

Employers and employees are still figuring out what life at the office will looks like during the coronavirus pandemic. Companies need to set clear expectations before the doors reopen about what new health and safety measures will be put in place.

Karin Cogbill, an employment lawyer at Hopkins & Carley, a law firm in Silicon Valley, said that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has put out some guidance about what employers can do to manage the health and safety of employees.

"Employers can require employees to disclose symptoms, and they can require temperate checks and testing as well," she said.

However, employers cannot make decisions about working in the office based on an individual's health status or other personal circumstances."The EEOC said it's not for the employer to decide whether a person should or should not come to the workplace," she said.

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SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Mask or no mask?

Another complicating factor for reopening offices is the varying rules about masks and social distancing. Some state governors have banned local governments from implementing mask rules while other state leaders have passed statewide rules for mandatory mask usage. 

Companies also need to factor in local conditions around the virus itself. The number of new cases and hospitalizations can be high in one part of a state and stable in another. Some counties have shelter-in-place orders while others have progressed farther into reopening  phases.

Cogbill said that companies need to be prepared to test reopening plans and revise them as needed.

"Everybody could return to the office and then that location could have a spike in cases, which could trigger another shelter-in-place order," she said.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Her employer is reopening in stages and first bringing back people whose work is more dependent on being physically present. Companies may need to stagger shifts to minimize the number of people in the office at any time. 

TechRepublic Premium's COVID-19 workplace policy covers all the topics that companies need to consider when returning to the office. This includes guidance about:

  • Face coverings
  • Personal protective equipment
  • Sanitizing supplies
  • Temperature checks
  • Daily health checks

Data privacy issues

One of the more sensitive issues for both employers and employees is dealing with a positive test result for the virus. Companies should set specific expectations about what to do when an employee or even a visitor to the workplace contracts the virus. This COVID-19 workplace policy spells out what an employee must disclose and how to return to the office as well.

This information should be managed by human resources professionals who are trained in how to handle sensitive and protected information. Companies operating in California are subject to the state's Consumer Protection Act (CCPA), which requires companies to disclose to employees what data is being collected. This includes temperature checks, any new information about chronic health conditions, and coronavirus test results. In addition to alerting employees about this data collection, the law also requires companies to consider how the data is stored, protected, and managed. 

"There are a lot of other laws cropping up in other states that copy the CCPA, and companies are going to have to manage that and deal with each state and local law," Cogbill said. 

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

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