By: Lisanne L. Mikula, Esquire
As more confirmed cases of COVID-19 spread across Pennsylvania, employers and workers are struggling to balance preventing the spread of the virus with the need to continue operating businesses and earning a paycheck. I offer the following suggestions to help navigate the unique circumstances presented by COVID-19 in the workplace:
- Stay Informed. Keep apprised of the facts relating to prevalence of the virus in your area, the means of preventing the spread of the virus, and any suggested—or governmentally mandated—guidelines which may impact your working conditions. The following are excellent resources for this type of important information:
- The Center for Disease Control – https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html;
- The Pennsylvania Department of Health – https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/Pages/Coronavirus.aspx;
- The Delaware County Intercommunity Health Coordination – https://www.delcopa.gov/ich/resources/coronavirus.html.
- Employee breaks relating to maintaining cleanliness. Regular handwashing and wiping down frequently used areas are some ways to help contain the spread of the virus. Employers should not only make sure that the workplace is adequately stocked with supplies to clean surfaces and allow employees to maintain good personal hygiene, but employers must also make sure workers are provided adequate time to regularly wash their hands and clean shared office equipment and common areas. Employers may need to be flexible in their current policies regarding short breaks. Employers must be mindful to observe applicable wage and hour laws regarding breaks. For example, employees must be paid for de minimus breaks—such as a brief break to handwash. Also, the cleaning of areas in the workplace might be considered compensable time. Employers considering changes to employee break policies—particularly as it pertains to employee pay—should first consult with an attorney who is experienced in wage and hour issues.
- Do not obtain more medical information than necessary. An employer can suggest that an employee with visible signs of illness leave the workplace; however, employers must be careful not to ask questions which are too specific about an employee’s medical condition, as that could violate an employee’s rights under laws protecting individuals from discrimination on the basis of disability. During a recent teleconference, the Center for Disease Control urged employers to consider relaxing any requirement for a physician’s note, citing to the high demands placed on medical professionals due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Prepare the workplace for potential remote access work. To contain the spread of the virus—and in anticipation of potential school closings which may require employees to stay home—employers should begin to determine what work may be performed remotely and assess whether the company has adequate software, technical support, and supplies to permit employees to work remotely. Employers should also inquire whether employees for whom remote work is feasible have the proper equipment and means to perform tasks remotely. There should be a uniform and specific procedure for all remote workers to record the time spent working to ensure that employees—particularly hourly employees—are properly paid. In light of the potential that COVID-19 may cause disruptions to an employee’s home life which could impact the employee’s ability to work during regular business hours—such as sharing a home workspace with family members who remotely attend classes or perform work—employers should determine whether an employee can perform his or her job duties during a set time frame or whether the time frame in which work is performed can be flexible.
- Avoid unnecessary travel and conferences. To help contain the spread of COVID-19, health care professionals have urged the public to avoid unnecessary travel and large gatherings. Employers should re-evaluate whether work-related travel or conference are necessary or whether the goals of these activities can be achieved remotely or at a later time. Cancellations of travel or lodging arrangements may or may not be recoverable, and employers and employees seeking to cancel plans may want to consult with an attorney to review applicable contracts and insurance policies regarding cancellation fees.
- Consider whether time off policies can be temporarily modified. Medical experts repeatedly advise that employees should not report to the workplace if they are showing signs of illness, or, as in the case of the highly contagious COVID-19, the employee has been in contact with an infected individual. Many employees insist on reporting to work, however, because they fear losing wages. While current federal and Pennsylvania state laws do not require paid time off, employers in Philadelphia are required to provide certain workers with paid time off. Also, many employers, either through the employer’s own policies or pursuant to an employment agreement or collective bargaining agreement, provide paid time off to employees. If employees’ paid time off is separated by specific categories—such as, for example, three “sick days” and five “vacation days”, employers may want to consider whether these categories of paid time off can be lumped together to address absences caused by the COVID-19 outbreak to allow workers to receive some pay while they are unable to work. Employers should consult with an experienced employment law attorney, however, before implementing creative ways for employees to “make up” time at work to ensure that applicable minimum wage and overtime laws are not violated.
The Law Firm of DiOrio & Sereni, LLP is a full-service law firm in Media, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We strive to help people, businesses and institutions throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania solve legal problems – and even prevent legal problems before they occur. To learn more about the full range of our specific practice areas, please visit www.dioriosereni.com or contact Lisanne L. Mikula, Esquire at 610-565-5700 or at [email protected]
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