Even as fans ask when, if ever, will the Milwaukee Brewers season begin and will the Packers and Badgers even kick off in the fall, with or without fans, on May 11 Andrea Palm, Secretary-Designee of the Department of Health Services, issued the most recent in the series of Executive orders, allowing the opening of stand-alone or strip mall-based retail stores. In person shopping is limited to five customers at a time and the order mandates that such establishments practice social distancing.
Even with that modest beginning, businesses which have suffered partial or complete closure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and state or local emergency orders wonder when and how they will reopen. Wisconsin’s Safer at Home Emergency Order was issued seven weeks ago, and an extension of the order was published by on April 16, 2020, largely continuing the restrictions on personal and work activity. While many applauded the extension, others protested, and a lawsuit challenging the authority to extend such an emergency order was heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on May 5, with a decision imminent.
In the meantime, employees have been furloughed, hours reduced, or jobs eliminated on a long-term basis. According to an article published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, some are predicting an unemployment rate of nearly 27% in Wisconsin because of the coronavirus pandemic. This compares to a February 2020 unemployment rate of 3.5%. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development indicated that there were over 313,000 weekly claims for unemployment for the week beginning April 25, compared to only 26,352 claims in that same week in 2019. Businesses and the public are anxious to shift the focus to reopening of these businesses and reengagement of employees.
Wisconsin emergency order, “Badger Bounce Back," signed by Secretary-Designee Palm on April 20, 2020, describes a phased approach to reopening the economy based on markers of recovery and readiness, which has now begun. Phase One allows gatherings of up to 10 people and limited reopening of restaurants. Phase Two allows gatherings of up to 50 people with significant easing of restrictions on restaurants, bars and non-essential businesses. Phase Three begins a full swing back into nearly unrestricted market activities, while still practicing heightened personal and facility vigilance.
According to a report published on May 8 by the USA Today Network, the state is experiencing positive trends in the number of influenza-type illnesses, COVID-like illnesses, the percent of tests that are positive, and COVID-19 cases among health care workers, which are among the measures called for by the Badger Bounce Back plan. In addition, specific Reopen Guidelines were issued by Governor Evers’s administration on May 8 to help businesses in creating and refining reopening plans. Specific protocols were offered for a variety of industries, including Agriculture, Construction, Entertainment/Amusement, Gym & Fitness Centers, Hair & Nail Salons, Hospitality/Lodging, Manufacturing, Professional Services, Restaurants, Retail, Transportation and Warehouse/Wholesale Trade. General Guidelines were also published.
In the meantime, Wisconsin’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, has developed and is now lobbying for its own phased in plan for return to work. Termed the “Back to Business” plan, it identifies specific regional risk factors which would be addressed on a platform using an algorithm to determine the risk for individual businesses.
Whenever the broader reopening of the state is allowed, there will be changes affecting the employer/employee relationship. According to a Society For Human Research Management poll during the first week of April, 19% of the respondents had already decreased pay rates and another 20% were considering that measure, and 15% of the organizations had permanently cut headcount with no intent to rehire. Further, for those who rely upon incentive pay or commission pay plans, there may be very significant changes in income, unless those plans are addressed.
It is with that in mind that we offer a few tips for employers who are making changes in staffing and the compensation and benefits provided to their employees:
While there is an uncertainty introduced by emergency orders, lawsuits and phased back-to-work practices, planning for the certain eventual return to work will be the essential difference between your organization’s robust recovery or continued difficulties to engage in the marketplace.