1. “I’m making more money being on unemployment”
This is actually a statement of fact – many employees are making more money being out of work on unemployment because of a $600 stimulus payment which expires on July 31st of this year. This payment is also known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA. What is also a factual statement is that if your employer is ready to bring you back to work, and you refuse, you are in jeopardy of completely losing your unemployment benefits. I would do my best to explain to my employee that I need them to return back to work because there is work that needs to be done. However, if necessary, I would state the obvious and that is “you are on unemployment because there was no work, now that there is work you need to come back, otherwise you would be in jeopardy of losing your benefits.”
2. “Will the company provide me with gloves and masks?”
Every organization should do their best to provide gloves and masks and hand sanitizer where you can. It is always an employer’s responsibility to keep employees safe. Now that we are dealing with COVID-19, part of that requirement is providing masks and gloves and hand sanitizer throughout your office, so that you can keep employees safe, and in turn they will feel protected.
3. “How has the office changed?”
This is a great question and I recommend you do your best to communicate very clearly about all of the changes that are being made to make your office space a safer one. If you have additional cleaning, mention it. If you have someone taking temperatures, mention it. If you have reconfigured your space or your cubicles or added plastic partitions, mention it. Mention anything and everything you are doing to help your employees feel safer and more secure about returning.
4. “How will we practice social distancing in the office?”
As a leader have you given thought to how you will manage common areas like the lunch room or a break area? What about the restrooms and elevators or stairs? These are all areas that are very hard to practice social distancing if there is no planning. I recommend you use the staircase for one direction, unless of course there is an emergency. Elevators should be occupied by one member at a time if possible. If using the elevator one at a time is not feasible then I recommend you have a person in each corner of the elevator and no more than four people at a time. For lunch time you may very well start allowing employees to eat at their desk, since you do not want groups of people congregating in an area like the lunch room. If you have a smaller group you can certainly stagger lunch times so that one or two people are in the lunch room at any given time, and they can sit six feet apart.
5. “I have an underlying health condition and I am not comfortable returning to work”
For this situation you are going to have to rely on the experts such as your Human Resources department, a benefits person, your benefits broker, or other insurance carrier. Since we are dealing with so many new laws around COVID-19 this employee may not need to come back to work. Instead, if they are not able to work because of an underlying condition or they are limited in their ability to work, then the Americans with Disabilities Act likely protects the employee, as does the Family and Medical Leave Act. A statement like this should trigger your Human Resources professional or whoever is in charge of your leaves to engage with your employee in the interactive process. In addition, employees of businesses with fewer than 500 employees may also be eligible for two weeks of pay or 10 business days under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act or FFCRA.
6. “My child’s school is closed” or “my child’s daycare is closed”
This presents an interesting set of problems, however, if an employer can remain flexible then it may work out fine. Think about the fact that this employee probably has been working from home for the past eight to ten weeks, and probably can work from home for an additional eight weeks to ten weeks until we get to the new school year. Under the circumstances I would say being flexible and allowing this employee to continue to work from home is going to benefit you in many ways. Most importantly the work will continue to get done, and you won’t have an employee on a leave of absence. Another recommendation I have been making is to suggest the employee alters their work shift. As an example if they have a spouse or partner that works a day job, then perhaps your employee can work the night shift so that someone is always home with the children.
7. “I have stress and anxiety about returning and am afraid I’m going to catch COVID-19”
This could be a mental health issue – when we discuss mental health we are talking about stress and anxiety. In this situation I would explain all the safety measures the company is taking. However, if at the end of the day this employee refuses to come back because of stress and/or anxiety then begin by giving them the Employee Assistance Program phone number. If that doesn’t work then engage your HR professional and see if a leave of absence is in order.
8. “Will you be informing employees if someone get the virus in the workplace?”
This is a tricky one – essentially you are required to tell employees whether they have been exposed – however, you can not disclose any employee’s health information at any time. This could easily cause a lawsuit for your company. Should someone in the workplace become infected with COVID-19, then the first step you should take is to meet privately or talk privately with this individual. Be kind and show concern. Assure the individual that their job is not in jeopardy but that you need information to keep everyone safe. Find out who they have been in close contact – within six feet – in the workplace, and make sure you send the employee home, along with anyone else they identify as having close contact. In a small office this could be devastating if many people are infected but this is a required step. If you need to announce this to other staff members, the phrase you should use is “an individual in our workplace has tested positive. The individual as well as employees that have been within six feet of this individual have been contacted, and sent home to self-quarantine.” Then provide an individual that employees can go to in order to ask questions. Privacy is paramount here.
9. “Are you allowed to take my temperature?”
The answer here is a clear “yes.” You may recall above I mention a company is always responsible to keep its employees safe. Part of keeping employees safe these days includes taking the temperature of all individuals who enter your workplace. However, this information is considered private so you can not disclose your employee’s temperature – instead just decide on a level, e.g., “anyone testing over 100 degrees Fahrenheit will need to go home and will not be permitted back into the office until 14 days of self quarantine have passed.”
10. “I refuse to…(fill in the blank)
You are sure to have some push back – after all we are dealing with human behavior and no two of us are the same. Try to ease employee’s concerns by explaining all the new protocols your company has put into place. If that doesn’t work then have your HR professional reach out to the employee to discuss leave options, if any. If the employee doesn’t qualify for any leave options, then unfortunately you will need to let them know that as part of their employment with the company, they must follow the new protocols and rules that have been implemented to keep everyone safe. If you still don’t get a positive result – allow the employee a few days to cool off – perhaps after a few days they may change their mind with the job market being so tight. If you still can’t get them to come to work then at this point you will want to speak to a labor attorney and follow their expert advice. Terminating an employee during COVID-19 may not be as easy as you think.
Be sure your most senior person is communicating that employees should stay home if they don’t feel well. There are many employees who feel bad about being out of work sick because of the burden it causes their peers, or because they think it looks bad on them. But hearing a message from a senior leader that it is acceptable, and is a requirement, will prevent anyone from coming into the office who may feel a bit under the weather.
In addition, make sure that you are training everyone in all of your safety actions put into place. As an example if you are taking temperatures, if you are no longer using common spaces, if you continue to cancel non-essential travel, etc., be sure you have someone in charge of training the staff in all of your new safety actions and protocols.
Remember … communication is going to be one of your most important elements of returning employees back to work; at this point I do not believe any company can over-communicate.
Employees will feel more comfortable if they continuously hear from leadership. Create a daily communication the first week. Perhaps start including company performance information in that daily communication as well – employees want to hear how their company is doing.
Rosemaria Altieri is a Human Resources executive with a career in the field spanning 20 years.