The Employer’s Guide to Returning to Work During COVID-19 (Part 1)

  • May 7, 2020
  • COVID-19
  • Colin H. Hargreaves

As Minnesota (and many other states) begin reopening for business, employers are beginning to consider how they will return to more normal operations.   This is the first of a three-part series designed to guide Minnesota employers through this complex process.

The focus here is on the steps needed to ensure a safe facility and working environment. Parts 2 and 3 will address bringing your employees back and specific legal issues that might arise in managing a workforce during a pandemic.

Implementing a Preparedness Plan

On April 30, Governor Walz extended Minnesota’s Stay at Home order until May 18. Notably, the Order allows non-Critical Exempt businesses (defined as industrial and manufacturing, office-based, and certain retail businesses) to resume operating in limited capacities, provided they meet certain criteria, including implementing a COVID-19 Preparedness Plan. While nothing requires Critical Sector employers to implement a Preparedness Plan, it is recommended that they do so as well.

A Preparedness Plan should cover, at a minimum:

  • Teleworking or working from home
  • Policies to ensure sick workers stay home
  • Encourage social distancing
  • Implement worker hygiene and source control measures
  • Establish cleaning and disinfection protocols.

In addition, management responsible for implementing the plan must sign it and certify that they will effectively implement and follow the Plan’s requirements. You must also provide the plan in writing to all workers and post it in all of your locations. Since a majority of your workers may still be telecommuting, physically posting the plan at your location may be impracticable so you may also post it electronically as long as it remains available for review.

Lastly, you must ensure that all of your workers are trained on the plan’s contents, including, but not limited to:

  • Protocols for workplace exposure
  • Sanitizing and disinfecting workspaces
  • When to send home workers who appear to be ill
  • Wearing and encouraging proper personal protective equipment (“PPE”)
  • How to implement new rules
  • Social distancing measures
  • What to/not to do in the workplace
  • How to do health assessments (if you plan on conducting them)

An optional template is available on Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s (“DEED”) website.

Opening Safely

Many employees are concerned with returning to the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers can try to alleviate this concern by incorporating effective safety measures, including:

  • Health screenings
  • Social distancing procedures
  • Reorganizing office and work spaces
  • Incorporating other creative policies to alleviate employee risk

Before beginning the process, you may want to survey your employees to determine their level of comfort in returning to work, any concerns they may have, what precautions may make them feel more comfortable, and any other comments they may have. This could offer critical insight into how to make your return-to-work plan more effective and comfortable.

Face Masks

While no guidance requires that employees wear facemasks, Governor Walz’s Executive Order 20-48 “strongly encourages” everyone to wear facemasks while outside the home. In addition, a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance said that employees can wear PPE, and employers can even require it. It should be noted, however, that if the employer requires masks and an employee seeks a disability-related accommodation, the employer will have to consider it.

If your employees regularly deal with vendors, customers or other third parties, consider requesting that those individuals wear manufactured or homemade facemasks while interacting with your employees. If they refuse, you can provide a mask free of charge.

Implementing Safety Measures

In addition to health assessments, the following are some ideas to implement that may help with social distancing and preventing infection:

  • Encourage or require sick workers to stay home
  • Limit access/entrances to your work space
  • Provide sanitizing stations with alcohol-based hand sanitizer, disinfecting/sanitizing wipes, and other cleaners for office spaces
  • Implement social distancing (6 feet) to the extent possible (this may include having some employees move locations, offices, or cubicles)
  • Implement one-way traffic in hallways so employees never have to pass each other or be within six feet
  • Stagger your employee’s return by slowly increasing the number of employees in your office week-by-week or month-by-month
  • Stagger your employees daily return by times
  • Increase ventilation rates and install high-efficiency filters in your office space
  • Prohibit sharing of headsets, keyboards, microwaves, tools, computers, papers, documents, files, etc.
  • Flex your employees shifts to spread out employees throughout the day and have less in the office
  • Encourage the use of PPE while traveling to, or from, the facility
  • Encourage teleworking
  • Limit meetings and other large gatherings
  • Install touch free doors, sinks, soap dispensers, bubblers, etc.
  • Maintain increased sanitization and disinfection procedures between work days
  • Know who is in the office in the event someone is COVID-19 positive (you will then know where they were, who they may have contacted, what workspaces to avoid and clean, etc.)
  • Place posters around the office regarding hand washing, social distancing, and effective coughing and sneezing etiquette

Cleaning and Disinfecting Procedures

If a returning employee subsequently tests positive, you should immediately begin disinfection procedures. The CDC recommends a variety of steps.

Bottom Line

Operating a business safely is a complex undertaking even in the best of times, but it seems almost overwhelming in the face of all that must be done during the current pandemic.  Fortunately, there is a great deal of expertise available to guide us in gearing back up in a safe way.

Watch for Part 2 of this series addressing returning employees to work.