March 15, 2020
The Gordon & Rees COVID-19 Task Force is on top of the latest news and scenarios raised by this week’s declaration by the World Health Organization that COVID-19 is a pandemic (a disease that is prevalent all over the world) and our government’s declaration of a national emergency. As the number of Americans infected with the COVID-19 virus grows, local governments are aggressively trying to contain the spread of the virus in their own states. From the East Coast to the West Coast, the reaction is fluid and we give you the latest here.
In the advent of the most confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (who already banned gatherings of 500 or more people and limited capacity at bars and restaurants) is directing businesses to aggressively look for ways to allow workers to work remotely and to strongly consider a voluntary shutdown. While this is currently voluntary, Governor Cuomo warned that if businesses fail to comply or the rate of infection fails to slow down, he would consider mandatory closures. In California, Governor Newsom immediately banned all gatherings of 250 or more people and authorized the state to commandeer hotels and medical facilities to treat the sick. Today, Governor Newsom took further action to shut down all bars and brew houses and to halve restaurants’ maximum capacity to encourage social distancing in these confusing times.
We write this update with the focus on the possibility that (a) you need to shut down physical operations of your office in favor of remote working or (b) that your operations or workforce may be impacted by other businesses shutting down. We invite you to discuss our tips and ask more questions. Keeping this dialogue open will help us withstand this crisis.
Scenario (1) Planning for an office shutdown.
Many businesses (schools, sports leagues, entertainment companies, Apple, Microsoft, and even Amazon and some law firms) are considering and implementing various levels of Work-From-Home directives. We recommend that you consider the following:
- Will your technology hold up?
Many companies have developed the ability to telecommute over the past several years. If you have done so, you are ahead of the curve. We recommend that you undertake a test run of your technology for a day or two to make sure you are prepared for a possible total office shut down. Take the time during your test run to consider the following questions: Do you have a remote computer network such as Citrix or GoToMyPC, that will permit seamless access to the office’s critical network systems? Will increased users on your remote system result in network disruption, slowing or crashing? Are your servers healthy and will you have emergency access to the server room if your building is closed? Does the support staff have training and hardware that will permit them to work from home?
Working remotely may create various wage and hour pitfalls but with planning, they may be avoided. As part of your planning, we encourage you to consider the following: Can you effectively and in compliance with your obligation to maintain accurate records of all time worked by non-exempt workers, record time from a remote location? Do you have a method of keeping track of meal breaks, rest breaks, possible off-the-clock work or overtime? Will the Work-From-Home model present controlled stand-by issues? We recommend utilizing either a software program or computer app that will effectively keep you in touch with your remote workforce, or simply requiring your non-exempt workers to submit timesheets on a daily or weekly basis.
Final considerations to ensure a smooth transition to a successful Work-From-Home workforce include determining whether to purchase or rent hardware or software or hire additional IT professionals. Equally important is paying stipends to employees to maximize their high speed internet and printing/scanning capabilities at home. Finally, consider investing in or upgrading video meeting platforms including GoToMeeting, Webex or Zoom, which we have tested and which work very effectively to hold meetings without requiring participants to appear in person.
- Can you contact all of your employees in an emergency?
In the days of no landline phones, you may not be able to contact your employees in the event of an office shutdown after working hours. Collecting emergency contact information for all employees and arranging a sequence of notification in the event of an office shutdown are critical.
Providing guidance to employees during a full office shutdown is also advisable.
The following should generally be considered:
- Determine whether employees will be required to remain at home or within a defined geographic location in case the office reopens.
- Direct employees to comply with any dress and grooming codes because they may be called to join a videoconference meeting at any time.
- Keep an open mind to requests for reasonable accommodations including ones pertaining to relocation outside of the state to be with family during an office shut down.
- These are unprecedented times and staying connected to your team by video conference or other group meetings should keep morale high.
History has shown us that in times of crisis, groups stick together and reward loyalty.
- Have you identified essential personnel?
For many businesses, a complete shutdown is not feasible. A business that relies on the US Mail for its operations, or services that must be provided in a business setting (such as doctor/dentist/veterinarian), we recommend that you consider identifying essential workers, staggering shifts, or rotating workers to report to an otherwise empty office all aimed at “social distancing” to limit risks of contraction of the virus. If you shut down, but neighboring businesses do not, you should consider the feasibility of permitting essential personnel to work at night or off hours to minimize risk of working in large gatherings.
We also recommend that you use your building’s property management office as another resource to help you identify any increased risk level faced by you and your employees. If you must have essential workers in the office, try to set a plan with the building’s management to identify the safest time for your staff. You may be surprised to see volunteers for the essential personnel designation.
- Can you still be productive, even in a workplace shutdown?
Yes. Keep the lines of communication open. If there is a sudden office closure, your employees’ stress will undoubtedly increase. The employees will now likely be frightened not only of contracting COVID-19, but also of losing their job. With the technology and systems testing recommended above, the successful employer can project a “business as usual” tone. Employees will perceive this and confidently work from home. Productivity need not dip if there is a Work-From-Home directive.
Scenario (2) Your office remains open but other business closures are impacting your workforce.
Many businesses are closed including schools, entertainment companies, and daycare centers. Italy has closed all shops, bars and restaurants in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Spain has followed suit and ordered all citizens to remain in their homes except to go to work, buy food, seek medical help or care for the elderly. France is set to do the same, plus close all non-essential businesses. Theme parks like Disneyland and Disney World are closed; sporting events are nonexistent—the MLB regular season is delayed a minimum of two weeks, the NBA, the NHL, The Masters Golf Tournament, the XFL’s inaugural season, and the NCAA College Basketball Championship were all canceled. Is our country next for a total shutdown? It is possible. All of these possibilities could happen. If they do, the closures may invariably result in an increase in requests for accommodations and forced changes due to workforce unavailability.
The immediate concern is school-aged childcare during school closures. Many workforces employ parents of school-aged children who will be home during a school closure. Most schools are implementing remote schooling, which will require parental supervision and may result in increased absences. We recommend that you treat any request for accommodation the same as you would if a parent requested to stay home with a sick child or attend a child’s school performance. Gently inquire whether the employee can work from home. Provide the employee with access to technology to remain a part of the workforce while staying home and carrying out the childcare responsibilities. We also recommend that you give extra leeway due to the indeterminate duration of school closures and the ever-changing availability of alternative childcare arrangements.
We recommend that you connect with others in the community and share information. Work with healthcare providers, government officials, and community liaisons. Please know that we at Gordon & Rees are here to assist and consider you an important member of our team. We will continue to update you as developments occur.
We are awaiting the final version of the Corona Virus Aid Law, which is anticipated to pass in the coming days. CVAL is expected to address coverage of COVID-19 testing fees and enhanced leave benefits in the event of a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Visit our COVID-19 Hub for ongoing updates.