Many of our clients are starting to consider reopening their New York offices, balancing the needs of the business and the safety of their employees and clients. While some businesses must reopen in order to keep their businesses alive, many more have the option of continuing to work from home for the foreseeable future. The right choice isn’t always clear, but here are five HR items to consider as you make your decision.
Changing Requirements and their Employee Impact
As this pandemic continues, requirements about keeping employees safe at work continues to change. Make sure you are reading the most up-to-date information from the city and state governments to ensure you are allowed to open. Usually, your HR department, employment counsel or HR service (such as a PEO or HR-payroll add-on) can help you to understand current guidance about your employees returning to work.
Also inherent in considering your employees returning to work is what to do if the requirements quickly change and you are forced to close again. Is it better for your employees to continue to work from home for an indefinite period of time while continuing to develop a new work-from-home rhythm, or to bring them in knowing you may have to send them home again? If you’re unsure about your stance, a short employee survey may be your best bet to understand and address employee concerns. Starting with a general sense of what will and won’t work for your employees is a great place to start.
Understanding Safety Requirements for Your Space
In New York City, both state and city requirements apply to reopening, and while they are similar they are not the same. Make sure you review both in detail before visiting your space to prepare for reopening.
Many of our clients are finding the reopening guidelines challenging due to the nature of New York City – small or shared offices that are normally created to accommodate the most people in the least amount of space – the opposite of what is now required under pandemic guidelines.
Note that employees must be at least six feet apart at all times while working, which is particularly challenging in most New York offices. The biggest challenge is often that desks face each other, and once employees are seated they are no longer six feet apart. As you plan a return to the workplace, make sure you go in, walk the space, and see what six feet apart at all times would mean for you – such as leaving empty desks near doors, walkways or elevators, or changing desk configurations.
In addition, the current requirements call for 50% or less occupancy of a space, based on its occupancy certificate. Make sure you speak to your building, landlord, or co-working space leadership to understand your occupancy and find a way to be below it.
After this evaluation, you may find that you are only able to host some of your staff in the space and not all of them at once. If this is the case, some options to consider are rotating days in the office, or bringing in departments that are most necessary for on-site work.
Considering Employee Waivers
Many of our clients have reached out asking for a waiver for employees to sign before returning to work, essentially protecting the business from liability if the employee contracts COVID-19 on site. While we understand the instinct to protect your business, current guidance from our professional organization, SHRM, and employment attorney partners indicates waivers are not actually providing any shield for employers.
This is because employees cannot waive certain laws that are in place to protect them from illness or injury at work, such as worker’s compensation laws and OSHA protections. It also in some cases is being used by plaintiff’s side attorneys to demonstrate employers knew the workplace was unsafe when asking the employees to return.
So what can you do instead to protect your business?
Planning Employee Trainings
With waivers off the table, the best way to proactively protect your business while also protecting your employees is to provide training regarding COVID-19 safety in the office. For some businesses, this is required by the state or city, but is a great practice for all businesses.
Your training should include what social distancing is and how to maintain it, any updates you’ve made to the office or working space to support employee health (such as stickers on the floor that help maintain social distancing), what personal protective equipment and personal cleaning supplies you are providing for employees, what processes you’re putting in place to make the workplace safe (such as elevator occupancy or one-way hallways), and what to do if an employee is not feeling well or has a positive case.
Once you create and perform these trainings, have your employees sign an acknowledgment form saying that they attended and understood the training. This is a great way to limit liability while sharing responsibility for the business’s safety with your employees.
Personal Protective Equipment & Safety Supplies
Finally, review the guidelines with your operations team and ensure you have all required cleaning and safety equipment available for your employees. Many businesses are required to provide personal protective equipment to employees, as well as EPA or CDC approved cleaning and hygiene supplies for the office. Think not only about the volume of supplies you need (including purchasing extra supplies to ensure you’re never below required amounts if supplies again run short) but where they will be situated around the office to ensure easy and equal access for all of your employees.