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  • Writer's pictureThe HR Guy

Heads Up: COVID-19 and Employee Relations

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

As a leader, it is essential that you provide your team with accurate and timely information. Your employees are possibly confused and scared. Our lives are in a state of flux none of us have faced. In order to provide leaders with information to navigate during the current COVID-19 emergency, I have compiled a Q&A that you might find helpful regarding the Human Resources and the Employee Relations aspects of the situation. I intend to not duplicate any other advice you are receiving regarding the virus itself, hygiene procedures or related governmental actions.

Instead I have focused on your leadership challenges in communicating with your employees and making sound decisions. There is likely conflicting advice out there. I have utilized the input from multiple sources including the Society for Human Resource Management, the CDC, and multiple law firms to give you appropriate guidance. HRchitecture is a management consulting firm and not a law firm; it does not offer, and is not authorized to provide, legal or medical advice or counseling in any jurisdiction, or are any conversations with its representatives considered privileged in any legal proceeding.

The situation is changing by the hour and as a result, I have re-written some answers numerous times in the past few days. I will be updating this information as required in this location.


Exposure Related Issues

1. Q: Can I use a screening mechanism such as taking employee temperature?

A: Yes, when performed consistently and with positive intent to maintain a safe workplace. Employee privacy and confidentiality must be maintained: Recording the temperature should not be done visibly or in a non-confidential manner. The ADA restricts inquiries that an employer can make regarding an employee’s medical status unless the inquiry is job-related and consistent with a business necessity. The EEOC has indicated screening in this circumstance may meet that requirement.

2. Q: Can I screen vendors, customers and other visitors?

A: Yes. The advice for screening employees applies to non-employees on your premises.

3. Q: Can I require an employee to leave the workplace?

A: Yes. Leadership should first take a collaborative approach: Remind the employee that you are asking them to leave, and try to make them understand the reasons why their departure is necessary to maintain the health and safety of the entire workplace.

If there are benefits available such as paid sick leave, use of accrued vacation, or something else that may appease them, you should explain these benefits and how the employee can utilize them.

If the employee still refuses to leave the workplace, you can consider (a) explaining that the employee is now trespassing on private property and if they do not leave you will be forced to call local law enforcement to escort them off the premises; or (b) terminating the employee for insubordination.

4. Q: Can an employee refuse to work with another employee they expect to be contagious?

A: Employers are obligated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to provide a workplace free of known safety and health hazards and employees have a right to refuse work that is unsafe and unhealthy. Proper sanitary practices should be enforced. The company should educate employees on social distancing and hygiene practices. The company should reasonably accommodate requests.

Employees cannot simply refuse to work, or to leave work without following OSHA defined processes.

5. Q: How do I implement social distancing in my workplace?

A: It is a good idea to brainstorm ideas specifically for your company then communicate centrally for consistency. Each area should not be creating their own practices unless they are in a unique situation. Some ideas are spacing workstations, staggering breaks and lunch periods and providing flexible hours for those reporting to work.


Remote Work and Quarantine Issues

6. Q: Can I require self-quarantining?

A: Yes, when performed consistently and with positive intent to maintain a safe workplace. Non-exempt employees do not have to be paid; exempt employees must be paid their weekly salary if any work is performed in that week.

7. Q: Can I require working at home or remotely?

A: Yes. Follow any existing policies and practices you have in place. If this is new, be sure to articulate this is a temporary situational policy and not a policy to allow anyone to work from home without prior approval. Run tests for system capacity and security.

8. Q: If my community is under a shelter-in-place decree, can I require some employees to come to work?

A: Yes, you can identify employees performing minimal basic operations and essential functions such as payroll, functions essential to facilitating other employees working remotely, and inventory and premises security. If your business is designated as an “Essential Business” the decrees generally are not applicable. Social Distancing practices should be followed.

9. Q: If an employee is required to work from home, does the company have to provide equipment and pay for internet access?

A: The company is legally not required to provide equipment or pay for internet access. From an Employee Relations perspective and business operations, however, this should be considered.

10. Q: How do I manage remote working employees?

A: Be positive, supportive and treat your employees as responsible adults. Clearly establish results-based expectations. Define working hours and schedules. Check in multiple times daily. If customer contact is required emphasize professional standards eliminating distractions and background noise.

Define and utilize collaboration software. Be clear about holding meetings away from work with other employees, vendors and customers.


Legal and Regulatory Issues

11. Q: Are any employment laws or regulations suspended due to this emergency?

A: Leadership must continue to comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations unless specifically suspended or altered by those jurisdictions. You should consult with your legal advisors if you have any specific questions.

12. Q: Do I have to comply with timekeeping, work breaks and other pay related laws?

A: Yes, companies must comply with all applicable laws such as minimum wage, overtime, mandatory breaks, predictive scheduling, standby and show up or reporting pay.

Time keeping is a challenge and clear procedures for recording time worked and breaks need to be communicated. Exempt employees must be paid their regular salary if any work is performed during the week. If an exempt employee does not work a whole day, the company can deduct a whole day pay.

13. Q: Do I have to comply with Predictive Scheduling, Standby, and Show Up or Reporting pay?

A: Generally yes. Some provisions may not apply if the operation cannot begin or continue due to a threat to employees or property or due to acts of God or other cause not within the control of the employer. From an Employee Relations perspective, it may be best not to invoke these exclusions.

14. Q: Can I require use of PTO or sick leave programs when employees are unable to work?

A: You should act consistently with your PTO or leave policy and consider being more flexible. Flexibility may include waive waiting periods, allowing negative balances or implementing leave donation programs. Any regulatory paid leave regulations must be complied with.

15. Q: Does COBRA apply?

A: Yes, COBRA applies if the employee is terminated, It does not apply in layoffs or furloughs with an intention to return to work. If a recall does not occur the COBRA requirements apply.

16. Q: Is COVID-19 exposure reportable for OSHA logs?

A: You must record instances of workers contracting COVID-19 if the worker contracts the virus while on the job. The illness is not recordable if worker was exposed to the virus while off the clock.

17. Q: If I shut down how soon must I get final checks to my employees?

A: Some states have very specific requirements regarding final pay checks for terminated employees. However, if a business is temporarily shutting down because of a federal or local quarantine order, or even out of a precaution for the safety of the employees and customers, but it is only a temporary closure and the employees are not being laid off, employers are not required to issue final paychecks. 

Employees not working due to a suspension of operations can be paid on the next regular payday. A final paycheck is only required if the employee is being terminated or laid off.

18. Q: Are employees eligible for unemployment benefits if I send them home or suspend the business?

A: Most state unemployment insurance benefit regulations remain in place. Some states are waiving waiting periods and looking for work requirements. For example, in most jurisdictions to be eligible for benefits the employee must be available and willing to work. Employers will most likely have their experience-based tax rate impacted.


General Employee Relations Issues

19. Q: Can I require employees to travel?

A: Yes. From an Employee Relations perspective, it is advisable to investigate technology-based alternatives such as video conferencing particularly if this involves travel to locations identified as high or moderate risk by WHO/CDC.

Be aware that exposure contracted while on required travel may be subject to Workers Compensation liability. If travel to high risk areas happens, consider a paid self-quarantine period.

20. Q: How do I deal with employees who are not appropriately dealing with affected co-workers?

A: Employees are generally protected against any form of retaliation. These rules apply. From an Employee Relations perspective, while uncivil behavior and bullying are not generally illegal, any incidents should be dealt with quickly and emphatically.

21. Q: Can I prohibit or limit work time spent discussing conditions?

A: Leadership is prohibited from banning discussions of working conditions under the National Labor Relations Act. You can enforce the meeting of work requirements and minimize workplace disruption.

However Leadership should take a collaborative approach and must avoid discipling or discharging employees for exercising their rights.

22. Q: How do I handle an employee who is asking to bring their children to work?

A: Although this is a crucial issue with all the school and activity cancellations, this solution does not address the need for social distancing. There is no requirement for this.

If allowed the Company needs to issue a policy stating that the company is not accepting a child supervisory position and is not providing childcare or instruction. Many states require proper licensing to operate a daycare. It is recommended that you consult with your insurance company regarding accepting this liability.

23. Q: What should leadership do proactively?

A: Communicate, communicate, communicate. The communication needs to be kind, compassionate, and inclusive. The message should reinforce that we are all experiencing this together and we are in uncharted territory.

If not in place, develop policies for attendance notification, remote working, telecommuting, children at work, workplace visitation, travel, workplace hygiene, communicable disease, absentee leaves, and general business continuity.

If I can provide information specific to your circumstance or if you would like me to work with you to manage this crisis please contact me at

Best wishes.

HRchitecture is a management consulting firm and not a law firm; it does not offer, and is not authorized to provide, legal or medical advice or counseling in any jurisdiction or are any conversations with its representatives considered privileged in any legal proceeding.

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