COVID-19 has been a rollercoaster. Across the country, the virus has accelerated and then subsided several times over the past year, causing major ups and downs in many industries. Some companies have remained open to conduct essential business, while others have closed, then opened with modifications and then closed again. With a vaccine now being rolled out, the outlook is beginning to improve. However, employers still face the burden of how to keep employees healthy and get them back to work safely during this transitional period.
As states begin to allow businesses to reopen, there's a tendency to rush to get back to business as usual. While it's important to resume normal operations as quickly as possible, we need to be thoughtful as we move toward this goal. It’s a delicate balancing act between the need to maintain essential economic activities and maintaining workplace safety.
Here are some best practices for navigating the return to work process:
1. Be Informed
It is critical to determine whether any state and local mandates will affect the reopening of your business or facilities. Policies, legislation and guidelines have changed rapidly during the pandemic. Make sure that you are following CDC and OSHA guidance and understand what's required in your jurisdiction, because it can vary greatly from state to state and county to county.
2. Make Fair Choices
As business reopens, you may have to decide who will return to the workplace first. Use neutral selection criteria to determine which employees will return to work. Criteria such as seniority, performance or job classification and what roles the company needs filled should be considered. Depending on the size of the group of employees that are returning to work, you may want to consider conducting a disparate impact analysis to ensure that there aren’t any factors affecting one group more than another.
Be careful not to assume someone cannot return based on childcare needs or caregiving responsibilities or because they fall under the government label of vulnerable population. Higher risk for developing serious illness as a result of this virus is primarily based on age, disability or pregnancy. As a result, making any decisions because someone might fall into those groups can lead to discrimination claims.
3. Reinforce Guidelines and Protocols
Many employees have worked in more casual remote environments for the past months, so consider a refresher on respect in the workplace, harassment and professionalism policies. It is also important to provide education or training on any new safety guidelines, social distancing requirements and other protocols. A simple one-page document to instruct and educate employees on COVID-19 symptoms, social distancing, face mask use and other protocols that promote a safe workspace will help get employees up to speed quickly.
4. Implement Employee Screening
Businesses that have eased restrictions without putting safeguards in place have seen spikes in cases. This is because people have a false sense of safety when restrictions are eased. A quick screening of employees, based on CDC guidelines and recommendations, can be administered by a nurse or employee. Clinical confirmation includes temperature checks and a review of any symptoms to ensure the employee is healthy to return to work.
5. Leverage Telehealth
Telehealth and other virtual services can be a great option for a multitude of reasons. Telehealth offers more efficient and convenient care, resulting in increased employee engagement and satisfaction. This does not need to be limited to workers' compensation, as most health plans and health systems now offer this option for care. Take advantage of the convenience and the ability to mitigate potential exposure to COVID or any other contagious virus that might be in your provider's office.
6. Provide Testing Options
It is critical that employees have access to accurate testing whose results are easily and quickly reported. One way to ease the process is by providing access to self-administered COVID-19 test kits for periodic testing or for when an employee has been exposed to the virus. (CorVel, a national provider of risk management solutions, provides clients with a test kit from 1health, which requires a simple saliva collection to detect the virus with nearly 100% accuracy. A lab-certified report is delivered within 36 hours, allowing employers to make informed decisions about whether employees can safely return to work. The test kit can also be used as part of the initial virtual triage process—an employee who is having symptoms or who may have been exposed to the virus can receive a test kit to self-administer from the safety of their home.)
7. Support Employees
The effects of COVID-19 often go beyond the illness itself. Some issues that may prevent an employee from fully returning to work include delayed care or treatment for injured workers, prolonged COVID-related symptoms and COVID-19-related stress. Consider implementing services to support employees as they navigate the unexpected consequences of the pandemic. This could include critical event debriefing to help employees deal with the loss of a team member, routine wellness checks for injured workers and virtual mental health services. For injured workers awaiting surgery, provide tools to help them prepare for surgery, maintain optimum physical condition and rehabilitate post-op. Patients who are required to wait for surgery often become deconditioned, which will lengthen recovery time and increase cost. (CorVel offers a mobile app that measures, monitors and guides injured workers before and after surgery to speed recovery and reduce costs.) It is important that employees feel supported no matter what they are experiencing as a result of COVID-19.
Despite the vaccine outlook, COVID-19 isn't going to disappear tomorrow or next week or in the next month. Businesses will reopen, and employees will return to work, but procedures, protocols and support services need to be in place to ensure a smooth return-to-work.
Whether your business has been open throughout the pandemic or you are in the process of reopening, it is important to implement best practices that provide employee education on COVID-19, communicate clear expectations regarding health policies and expectations and assess employee health on a continuing basis. In this new normal, the goal is to return to business and get employees back to work as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.