How companies should respond to the novel COVID-19

What to do when it might be dangerous to have your employees at work

The world is in the midst of what could be one of the most significant pandemics of the century. At the very least, a disease epidemic, unlike anything the world has seen in over a decade. And it’s hitting people hard where they spend a considerable chunk of their time: at work.

With massive events like the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Halifax, NS cancelling, mandatory travel bans, and quarantines and work-from-home policies in force, companies are faced with balancing the health and safety of their employees with the need to keep the lights on.

“There are no rulebooks for this kind of stuff,” says John Bremen, managing director of human capital and benefits for advisory firm Willis Towers Watson. “This is really a new and evolving situation.”

Now that worldwide cases of COVID-19 are in the six figures, and disease experts are warning the elderly and immune-compromised to avoid travel and crowds. We heard from workplace experts about the tough choices employers must make amid the turmoil. Here, we answer some of the most asked questions about how to deal with a highly contagious virus at large.

How do you decide whether to place travel bans or have employees work from home?

The Ministry of Health and local health authorities continue to offer guidance on this for employers, but this will also largely depend on where you operate and who your employees are. If you run a business with younger employees in a state with limited or no cases of COVID-19, you don’t need to send workers home immediately.

That said, if there are COVID-19 cases in your area, you have older or immune-compromised employees, or if your workers have travelled to a high-risk area, it may be smart to have employees work from home if they can. Nearly half (46%) of organizations are implementing remote work because of the epidemic, according to a recent survey from Willis Towers Watson.

If you’re going to encourage employees to work remotely, your IT departments should provide laptops to those who need them. Or to set up technology so employees can access company systems from home. “The CDC and the state departments of health are trying to avoid large groups of people,” says Regina Morek, a human resources consultant in Ithaca, NY. “Employers might be testing out ways they can have core staff—not a large group—at the workplace and then others working from home.”

Regarding travel, many major employers (Amazon, Apple, Google) have restricted non-essential travel. They have banned all travel to countries hardest hit by COVID-19, such as China, Italy, South Korea and Iran. Some 55% of companies are encouraging virtual meetings to decrease travel, and 47% have cancelled planned conferences in certain countries, according to the Willis Towers Watson data. This has already had an impact on industries supported by business travel, such as hotels, event and conference planning, trains and airlines.

And, it goes without saying that you should encourage employees to stay home if they have any symptoms of illness.

How should you communicate company policy and developments to employees?

Employers should be using any and all channels to keep workers updated. “In times like this, I think overcommunicating is absolutely fine,” Morek says. She recommends communicating via email, via phone for those employees who don’t use their email or who don’t have access to email.  She also recommends creating a special area on your website or intranet for COVID-19 employee updates.

Another option: Create a dedicated phone number employees can use to find out the status of the workplace. “Supervisors must listen to employees and allay fears, as best they can, by conveying knowledge and facts,” Morek says.

That goes for more general COVID-19 information as well. More than half (59%) of companies have organized communication campaigns geared toward preventing the spread of the disease. (Pro tip: Wash your hands.)

How should you handle absenteeism due to COVID-19 quarantines or school closures?

How companies manage worker absences will vary depending on that employee’s vacation allotment, their duties and their benefits in general. If a worker gets quarantined, but can still work from home, they might have to use vacation or sick leave. Some companies are pledging to pay hourly workers their regular wages even if hours are reduced due to COVID-19. Uber is offering drivers and couriers 14 days of paid sick leave if quarantined or ill due to the coronavirus.

For employers of workers in the service, food, delivery or healthcare industries where human contact is necessary and/or the work can’t be done remotely, it’s vital that you review PTO and sick leave policies.

“Companies are trying to do what’s in the best interest of their employees,” Bremen says. “For some, [absence might be treated as] paid time off, for some, it might be sick time, and for some, it might be short-term disability leave.”

You’ll want to be clear about your policies and what will happen if workers must go home for extended absences. “Does it qualify as paid family leave?” says Matthew Burr, a human resources consultant in Elmira, NY. “Are we paying people to try to get them through the hard times or is it unpaid? Are we accepting doctor’s notes? All that stuff needs to be hammered out.”

What policies and procedures should you employ to keep business running while following necessary protocols?

If you don’t already have a contagious disease policy or business continuity plan, now might be a great time to create one. “If employers neglected to implement a contagious disease policy during the West Nile or Ebola virus outbreaks, the severity of the coronavirus is all the impetus companies need to develop a written policy,” says Melissa Gonzalez Boyce, JD, legal editor of human resources site XpertHR. “Written policies help prevent the spread of disease by creating work rules that promote safety through infection control and minimize the negative impact of sudden emergencies.”

Likewise, a business continuity policy will guide business operations when decisions must be made quickly in a chaotic atmosphere. It might outline a contingency plan for vital duties and functions if a critical employee (or team) is too sick to work for an extended period.

It’s also necessary to practice and encourage empathy at a time of uncertainty and stress. This is particularly true since fear about COVID-19 can lead to social stigma toward certain people or places. It can also result in stigma or avoidance of people who have been quarantined for the disease. Employers can dissuade negative behaviour or beliefs with the following practices:

  • Maintain the privacy of those who may be seeking healthcare for coronavirus
  • Share accurate information and correct misinformation about how the virus spreads
  • Speak out against negative behaviours, including negative information on social media about people or groups of people
  • Share images responsibly and ensure that they do not reinforce stereotypes
  • Thank healthcare workers and responders

Will this send us into a recession?

It’s early days for recession talk—and this situation is a new one for most players. “There are so many unknowns, and I think it’s very difficult to predict,” Bremen says. “I think everybody certainly hopes there’s a speedy resolution to it, and I think everybody would like to get back to business as usual. The question is how long it will be until that happens.”

In the meantime, keep in mind that recent job numbers were good, and unemployment levels are still at record lows. “The markets are in panic mode right now, but I don’t think there are long-term repercussions,” Burr says. “The economy’s been doing very well. We’ve got to take it day by day and not overreact to some of the coverage.”

Where can you get the best, most up to date info about COVID-19?

Here are the best resources for information on the coronavirus:

Health Canada Coronavirus Disease 2019
Guidance for Businesses and Employers
Prevention and Risk Recommendations
Comprehensive and Updated FAQs for Employers on the COVID-19