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5 Legal Considerations for Employers Dealing with Coronavirus

5 min read • Apr 18, 2020 • Grant Olsen

As a small business owner, you have a responsibility to protect your employees, your customers, and your business. On top of these work-related duties, you should also make your personal and family health a priority. These can all be difficult tasks as we navigate a prolonged onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic.

Many businesses have been forced to shut down, while those carrying on with everyday operations are constantly looking for ways to safeguard their employees’ health. This practice involves a delicate balance of knowing what’s going on with each employee while still respecting their privacy.

Lowering Liability Through Legal Compliance

How would you rate your employee safety policies and protocols? Are they adequately protecting your people? Are they too invasive? These questions are crucial as there are legitimate legal risks associated with the way your business deals with the coronavirus crisis.

“As the virus spreads and experts’ understanding of it continues to evolve, employers find themselves asking what precautionary measures they can or should take in response to the outbreak and its risks, how to respond when problems arise, and what are the legal considerations surrounding these measures,” explains a coronavirus liability analysis written by a team of legal experts.

It might seem crass to worry about legalities when people are dying and families are facing financial devastation. But your business’s ability to take care of employees is closely tied to its solvency. You must avoid legal action if you want to be able to take the positive actions this crisis demands.

Preparedness Is Critical

There are ample resources out there to bolster your business’s emergency preparedness. Here are a few standouts:

While these resources provide tips and strategies for coping with a wide range of disasters, the coronavirus pandemic has presented unique challenges not seen since the Woodrow Wilson administration. Prior to the start of 2020, if any business had seriously planned for a scenario involving prolonged social distancing, they would deserve a gold medal for their foresight.

This situation is undoubtedly a distinct and brutal disaster on many fronts. But you can safeguard your business and employees by considering legal aspects of the coronavirus crisis such as:

  • Is hygiene up to snuff?

With infectious threats, you need to make sure you’re taking proper actions to lower the chances of workplace transmission. Employees who show up to work and have symptoms should be sent home immediately. Likewise, those who have been exposed shouldn’t be allowed to linger. Communicate these expectations clearly so your team understands the rules and your liability is decreased.

Even with certain employees self-quarantining, there will be a risk of infection. Start by making hand sanitizer available throughout the office. You should also confirm that employees in all areas of the workplace have access to a sink where they can wash their hands with soap.

Finally, assign someone to clean frequently-used objects such as elevator buttons, doorknobs, tables, counters, and keypads.

  • When can self-quarantined employees return to work?

You have the right to keep your team from coming to work if their presence could be detrimental to the health of those in the office. The same cannot be said for barring a worker from the office due to their race, religion, or sexual orientation.

To protect your business from liability with this delicate scenario, make sure to clearly communicate your protocols with your team. You can boost the acceptance and adherence of the rules if you solicit ideas from your team in advance. The more their feedback is reflected in the policy, the better.

  • How will you handle employee leave and pay?

There are plenty of factors to consider here. Your state has its own workers’ compensation rules you’ll need to adhere to, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) on the national level.

If you have existing protocols for employee leave and pay, they may not be adequate for a crisis of this magnitude. Carefully evaluate your legal obligation and how you will handle scenarios where your people must spend extensive amounts of time outside the office.

  • Are you protecting privacy?

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced a new level of danger into our workplaces. If an infected employee comes to the office, more employees could get sick. You have an obligation to protect your other employees but must still handle the health information of your employees carefully. Make sure you keep all private information safely in your usual data protection protocols so you don’t run the risk of getting accused of breach of privacy.

  • Will you compensate employees at home?

This is a complex question. First, you’ll need to identify whether the employee is quarantined at home, infected with the coronavirus, or providing care for someone else who is infected.

As you review your policies for sick leave and consider the applicable laws, you’ll get closer to finding the answer regarding compensation. You will need to do what’s right as far as your liability is concerned, as well as what’s right in taking care of your people.

Stay Flexible to Stay Compliant

When you’re facing a once-in-a-generation crisis, it’s important to remember that your existing procedures and protocols may now be obsolete, which isn’t a knock on the planning that went into them. Presumably, they served you well in the pre-pandemic years.

But we’re now entering uncharted waters, so don’t rely too heavily on your old maps. Instead, it’s important to stay updated on the situation and be prepared to carefully adapt to what’s happening. Certain aspects of your business policies are likely evergreen. Others will need to change in substantial ways.

What matters is that you never lose sight of your commission to protect your employees, your customers, and your business. There will be difficult decisions ahead. But as long as you keep those 3 priorities front and center, you’ll enhance your ability to honor your responsibilities and get through this chaotic time.

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Grant Olsen

Grant Olsen is a writer specializing in small business loans, leadership skills, and growth strategies. He is a contributing writer for KSL 5 TV, where his articles have generated more than 6 million page views, and has been featured on FitSmallBusiness.com and ModernHealthcare.com. Grant is also the author of the book "Rhino Trouble." He has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University.