Tackling the Realities of COVID-19, Part III: Communicating Safety Protocols and Return-to-Work Plans to Employees

Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

Businesses across the country are finally beginning to reopen and individuals are returning to work. As part of the reopening process, companies are implementing new safety protocols. Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans are not always successful. For example, a good friend recently returned to work. Despite having a safety plan in place, within the first few weeks of reopening, the company has experienced multiple positive COVID-19 cases—all from one work group (which is a recordable event under OSHA). Those employees who tested positive for COVID-19 are now recovering at home and the remainder of the work group (as well as others with potential exposure as determined through contact tracing within the plant) are on quarantine. In discussing the situation with my friend, she admitted that what made her angry was not the fact that the employees tested positive at work but the company’s lack of communication about how it planned to improve its safety protocols.

The first step to help prevent this situation is to have a return-to-work plan that follows the most recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As part of the implementation process, employers will want to decide how to communicate the plan to employees. If proper communication is not part of a return-to-work plan, companies may find themselves in a situation where employees refuse to return to work, claiming that working in an environment where COVID-19 is present poses a potential hazard and a health risk. If an employee makes such a claim, it may have implications under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act and the National Labor Relations Act. In addition, these employees may remain eligible for unemployment benefits.

Employees are scared and many are very nervous to return to work. How management communicates with employees is critical to retain trust in this environment. Employees need to know companies care about their health and safety. Communicating and training employees on new or revised safety procedures is key to maintaining a positive work environment. It is also helpful to document new training and safety procedures.

If a company is in a position where the safety measures are not working or if a company has an influx of COVID-19 cases, the company may want to determine if there are additional steps or changes that can be made. In addition, it may be a good idea for employers to listen to the concerns and solutions offered by their employees and line supervisors. In some instances, line supervisors and employees may have suggestions for how to adjust the work environment to allow for increased social distancing and other measures.

As we learn more about COVID-19, the CDC’s suggestions for reopening businesses are evolving. It is important that companies keep up to date on the most recent guidance. If changes need to be made in the workplace, employers should consider explaining and communicating to their employees the reasoning and basis for the revisions to current processes.

And remember, good communication is a two-way street.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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