7 Steps to Reopen Your Business during the COVID-19 Recovery
Massachusetts officials are cautiously optimistic, as COVID-19 infection rates seem to be leveling off in our state. A four-phase reopening plan is now underway, with at least three weeks between each phase. And business owners from all industries are getting ready to bring people back to their offices, stores, and job sites.
What do these companies need to do, in order to ensure a safe and responsible transition?
The following framework provides seven basic steps. Because we are not health or legal experts, we’ve curated a series of links and recommendations–from various government agencies and professional associations–to accompany each step. Above all, safety and scientific data should be your business’ guiding force. So, in addition to this framework, we recommend consulting your state and local COVID-19 guidelines regularly, as well as before reopening.
You may also wish to visit the web page of your industry’s leading trade associations and professional groups. Many associations are supplying tailored return-to-work advice, for example:
- COVID-19 Guidance for Landscaping Business Owners
- COVID-19 Guidance for Builders & Contractors
- Reopening Guidance for Retail Business Owners
- COVID-19 Guidance for the Manufacturing Industry
- Reopening Guidance for Restaurant Owners
- COVID-19 Guidance for Waste Hauling Businesses
- COVID-19 Guidance for Craft Breweries
ASSIGN A COVID-19 COORDINATOR OR ASSEMBLE A COVID-19 TASK FORCE
If you haven’t already designated a coordinator (or created a COVID-19 Task Force), make this your first action item before bringing employees back to work. Consider electing a group of people (representing all core business functions) who are ready to anticipate and field any questions or concerns. Ideally, your company’s senior leaders, your attorney, and your insurance agent would all play roles on this force. But even if your company is small, at a minimum, the CDC recommends “identifying a workplace coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 issues and their impact at the workplace.”
Together with your task force or coordinator, review the most current federal, state, and local guidelines (including shelter-in-place orders). If you employ any union members, review collective bargaining agreements to see how these may impact the reopening process. Your task force will be necessary in executing all of the following steps today, and updating plans for business continuity in the event of future outbreaks or shutdowns.
For more advice to inform your task force and business continuity planning, visit: Managing through Flu and Other Epidemics in the Workplace from the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM).
ESTABLISH COMMUNICATION CHANNELS
The COVID-19 crisis has been constantly evolving since the illness first began to affect Massachusetts’ businesses in late February/early March. Shifting protocols will likely persist, even as we return to some semblance or normality. No doubt, new questions and challenges will emerge as we alter work environments, procedures, and expectations.
Be prepared to address these in a consistent and efficient manner—either through weekly internal email alerts, text messages, video conferences, or some combination of the above. Employees should know when and how they can expect to hear from you—not only to alleviate their anxieties, but to curb an influx of questions to your managers and supervisors, as well.
Remember too that communication needs to run both ways. Establish mechanisms through which all employees feel comfortable reporting COVID-related problems or concerns. Depending on the size of your business, you may need to create a designated email account or even a hotline for incoming messages about the situation. The questions you get should inform your communications.
Here’s a good primer on Communicating with Employees during a Crisis from the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM).
REVIEW LEGAL ISSUES AND EMPLOYMENT PRACTICES
The “new normal” of a post-COVID world will bring to light a host of employment law questions. Without proper consideration as to how you will respond to your employees, you risk running afoul of certain new or existing requirements. Common issues may include:
- Can you (the employer) force someone back to work if he/she is not comfortable returning?
- What if the employee is caring for a school-aged child (now that school has been canceled for the year)?
- What about employee leave for a sick relative?
- Do employees have the right to petition for extended work-from-home privileges?
- Can you require COVID-19 testing?
- Can you make inquiries about the health of employees’ household members?
- Can you share the results?
Questions like these collide with new or existing laws on fair wages, anti-discrimination, health and safety. Case in point: Employers with less than 500 employees will need to be aware of their obligations – and the limitations on employees’ rights – under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). There has been some confusion regarding the circumstances under which employees are entitled to paid leave under the FFCRA and how such leave is to be administered.
For quick answers, check out these resource pages from various U.S. government departments:
If you don’t have a lawyer or business advisor who is already familiar with your company, you might want to explore these free hotlines for employers, to access free advice on everything from employment discrimination laws to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
PLAN FOR A STAGGERED RETURN
Phasing your return-to-work plan, by bringing employees back in stages (instead of all at once) is a smart way to reduce exposures at a tentative time in our area’s recovery. Recently, it’s also a Massachusetts state requirement.
According the state’s staff capacity limits, all businesses must limit the number of staff on site, at any given time, to 25% of their average employee count. That means if your office space typically houses 20 employees, only five can come back to work concurrently.
You might try staggering schedules for different employees or groups of employees to limit the number of people in your work environment at any given time. Meanwhile, continue to encourage remote work for roles that are conducive to teleworking and for employees who have already proven they can be equally efficient at home.
ADJUST PHYSICAL WORK STATIONS AND HABITS
Plan to reassign or adjust work spaces, as needed. (Here’s the latest on COVID19 Workplace Safety mandates from Massachusetts lawmakers.) Adjustments might mean installing Plexiglass dividers to some work areas, or simply allowing enough space for recommended social distancing. Limit employee access to high-traffic/shared areas, including your cafeteria, break room or conference room. Encourage phone calls and videoconferencing in lieu of in-person conversations, especially where a group of workers is involved in the meeting. Remind employees not to shake hands and to wash hands frequently.
PROVIDE A WRITTEN SAFETY PLAN, SANITATION SUPPLIES, AND PPE, AS NEEDED
Among your task force’s most important jobs is the creation of a safety plan. Safety plans are essential not just for preventing further COVID-19 spread, but (for some businesses) for securing permits and job contracts, as well. Your safety plan should cover best practices in handwashing , mask wearing, glove wearing, and the frequent disinfecting of surfaces. Here is some advice from the CDC on disinfecting workplaces.
Depending on your workers’ roles and physical job requirements, it might make sense for you to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizing stations to help prevent viral transmission to and from clients, vendors, outside visitors, and each other. Your company’s safety plan should outline who will supply the PPE, along with any special accommodations for workers who can’t follow PPE recommendations due to disabilities, medical conditions, religious reasons, etc.
For more advice on safety measures, illness prevention, and a safety plan template (designed for contractors), try these links from OSHA and the CDC:
Implementing Safety Practices for Critical Infrastructure Workers Who May Have Had Exposure to a Person with Suspected or Confirmed COVID-19
CONSIDER IMPLEMENTING AN EMPLOYEE SCREENING PROCESS
As a business owner, you are within your rights to ask employees to submit to certain screening measures, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in your workplace. In fact, under the latest OSHA guidelines, companies employing more than 10 people are required to report work-related cases of COVID-19. Here’s more on how you should plan to report these cases.
Before reopening your business, you’ll need to establish things like:
- Who will conduct and oversee the screening?
- Is a self-reporting system sufficient?
- Where and how will screening data be recorded?
- What will the threshold be for a temperature that’s considered safe?
- How will employees continue to work while waiting to be screened (or while awaiting actual test results)?
- How will you comply with wage/hour laws if an employee needs to be sent home?
- Who will be tasked with recording workplace-related COVID-19 cases?
For help answering these questions and more, visit:
Above all, it’s worth restating, please use caution and the latest guidance from government agencies when planning to reopen your business. In our home state of Massachusetts, the government has required the completion of a control plan and the display of several posters, which you can find below this article (if reading on a mobile device) or in the right-hand sidebar (if reading on a desktop). You can also find these resources and more information about them at www.mass.gov/info-details/reopening-massachusetts.
If you have specific questions about any of the links and resources provided here, please contact our commercial insurance team at 508.339.2951.
NOTE: Although this article was reviewed by our team of Massachusetts business insurance agents, please be advised that we are not lawyers, healthcare experts, or compliance advisors. This post is intended for general information purposes only, and shouldn’t be viewed as legal, financial, health, or regulatory advice. Please consult with a relevant professional before taking any sort of action.