UPDATE July 30: This article has been updated to take into account the CDC’s latest guidance on self-isolation, issued on June 20.
As many stay-at-home orders begin to expire, state government leaders across the country are implementing plans to reopen businesses. Many businesses are also deciding when is the right time to bring staff back to work. As an HR leader, you’re focused on making decisions that ensure the safety of your workforce, and it’s critical that you have detailed strategies and protocols in place before bringing staff back to the office. In this article, we’ll cover the various considerations HR and business leaders must keep in mind when reopening work locations.
CDC Return to Work Guidelines
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released guidance to help advise businesses preparing to reopen. The CDC recommends that businesses should not reopen unless they can answer yes to these three questions:
- Are you in a community that no longer requires significant mitigation (or restricting operations to designated essential critical workers)?
- Will you be able to limit non-essential employees to those from the local geographic area?
- Do you have protective measures for employees at higher risk (e.g., teleworking, tasks that minimize contact)?
Even if companies are able to meet these requirements, the CDC recommends that businesses remain closed until they can implement the following safeguards to combat the spread of the virus, including:
- Enhanced cleaning and disinfecting
- Social distancing
- Telework and cancellation of non-essential business travel
- Seating distance of at least 6 feet and staggered gathering (starting/closing) times
- Restricted use of any shared items or spaces
- Staff training on safety procedures
Finally, the CDC recommends that businesses should refrain from opening until they are able to create ongoing protocols that closely monitor employee well-being and safety. These include:
- Having sick employees stay home
- Establishing routine, daily employee health checks
- Monitoring absenteeism and having flexible time off policies
- Have an action plan if an employee or worker tests positive/presumptive positive for COVID-19
- Creating and testing emergency communication channels for employees
- Establishing communications with state and local authorities
Even after following these suggested practices, businesses will face questions and other challenging decisions that impact employee safety. As an HR or business leader, work closely with your executive team or business continuity team to address the following scenarios.
Determine Which Employees Return First
It’s unlikely that all of your employees will return at once, so start by considering what departments or teams should return first based on business needs and ability to follow proper safety protocols like social distancing. No matter what choices you make, be sure to document the legitimate business reasons for selecting employees to return if questions arise.
Implement Social Distancing Procedures
To help reduce the number of employees on site, you’ll likely be tasked with reconfiguring your workplace and staggering work hours or even alternating work days for different groups or teams. Here are social distancing practices and recommendations to consider:
- Social distancing rules should be communicated electronically and/or in hardcopy at workstations and common areas
- You may want to provide a training video that outlines the new procedures
- Offer work-from-home options for all employees who can perform duties remotely
- Stagger shifts and start times to maximize distancing
- Evaluate workplace layouts and consider changes if social distancing guidelines cannot otherwise be met
- Use barriers to block airborne particles and ensure minimum distances in the workplace, as recommended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
- Provide visual markers on floors for six-foot distancing, per CDC guidance
- Develop protocols to avoid crowding in elevators
- Close or modify certain common areas, such as lunch rooms, time clock stations and workplace fitness centers to promote social distancing
- Instruct employees to bring their own meals that can be eaten without the use of a microwave
- Prohibit nonessential vendors and deliveries from entering facility
- Require deliveries to be dropped outside facility door, eliminating vendors from entering facility
Continuing Remote Work
Working from home is not for everyone, but you may be surprised to find that some of your employees are thriving in this new environment. If you’re thinking about reopening, consider which employees can continue to work remotely so you can adjust your work locations to accommodate for social distancing. One way you can better understand the pros and cons of working from home is to offer your employees a survey. This is a great opportunity to understand their challenges and learn what tools or resources you could offer to support your employees’ new environment. You can also use the survey to see which of your employees are comfortable with their arrangements and may not need to immediately return to the office.
In-Person Meetings & Conferences
Even if you plan to reopen, conduct meetings virtually as much as possible. If in-person meetings are deemed necessary, they should follow social distancing requirements. Remember to also implement protocols for sanitizing meeting spaces between meetings throughout the workday.
Resuming Business Travel
Most businesses have completely suspended all travel for their employees, especially as shelter-in-place directives have been handed down by state and local governments. Even as businesses reopen, carefully consider your travel policies and err on the side of caution. The CDC recommends requiring a two-week quarantine for employees traveling more than 100 miles from your facility.
Managing the Spread of COVID-19: How to Handle Employees Impacted by the Virus
You may be faced with situations where an employee tests positive for COVID-19 or presents symptoms without officially being diagnosed. Here are recommended guidelines to follow depending on the scenario:
Presenting Symptoms of COVID-19
If an employee suffered from a fever and cough, was not positively diagnosed for COVID-19 and has recovered, they can return to work under the following conditions:
- A minimum of 3 days has passed since recovery, with no fever for at least 72 hours. Employees also must have no abnormal temperature for 72 hours without the use of any fever-reducing medicines like aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
- Their respiratory symptoms have improved
- 7 days have passed since symptoms first started
Confirmed Case of COVID-19 with No Symptoms
If an employee has tested positive for COVID-19 but has not presented symptoms or become ill, they must remain in isolation following their diagnosis. Based on the CDC guidelines, they can return to work after meeting the following conditions:
- At least 7 days have passed since the date of their first positive COVID-19 test
- For an additional 3 days after they end isolation, they continue to limit contact (stay 6 feet away) with others
- They wear a mask or other covering of their nose and mouth to limit exposure
Confirmed Case of COVID-19 but Not Requiring Hospitalization
UPDATE: This advice has been updated to account for the CDC’s revised guidance released on July 20.
If an employee has tested positive for COVID-19 and has become mildly or moderately ill due to the virus but did not require hospitalization, they can return to work after meeting the following conditions:
- At least 10 days have passed since symptoms began
- They have experienced no abnormal fever for a minimum of 24 hours. Employees must have no significant temperature for 24 hours without the use of any fever-reducing medicines like aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
- Other symptoms have improved
- The employee exhibits no symptoms of COVID-19
Confirmed Case of COVID-19 Requiring Hospitalization
These individuals pose the highest risk of spreading infection across your workforce. The CDC recommends that any employee who has received a positive test and has been hospitalized receive rigorous testing before returning to work because they may experience longer periods of viral detection compared to those with mild or moderate symptoms.
Need a bird’s eye view of the guidelines? Fill out the form to get “Coronavirus Return to Work Checklist.”
Download the checklist to see rules and best practices related to:
- Job status & rate of pay guidelines
- Federal, state and local laws
- Benefits and retirement plans
- Facilities cleaning & sanitizing
- Social distancing
- Employee health
- Working with vendors
- Interacting with customers