Panel: 1st day back in office should be about education, not production

If your company’s first day back to the office was not productive, that’s probably a good thing.

New Jersey’s first official day back in the office was Wednesday, brought on by Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision to lift COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions Tuesday. But employers mustn’t fret if nothing was accomplished. In fact, panelists on a Rutgers webinar Wednesday said it might be better that way.

Dr. Jeffery Hess, the corporate medical director for General Motors, said when it reopened its first plant in Indiana a few weeks ago, there was no production at all.

“The entire day was based on education and communication,” Hess said. “We explained to our employees what we’re all up against and what we’re doing to keep them safe. We’d been doing this already, posting regularly to our Facebook pages to keep the employees informed, including video updates.

“Spending that first day on education really helped to put our workers at ease. They came back the next day feeling comfortable about their work environment and their co-workers.”

The webinar, “Workplace Safety and Employee Re-engagement,” was hosted by Competitive Business Solutions and the Center for HR and Leadership Development at Rutgers University School of Management & Labor Relations.

Panelist Carmen Martino, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, spoke about an “equity of training” and creating open and honest engagement between employer and workers “based in trust, where being outspoken and asking questions is not something where those who do so suffer outside of these meetings. (Having a) we’re-all-in-this-together approach is what you need.”

Martino stressed there will be a lot of reopening challenges.

“There is no employer standard for this, so companies will be asking themselves, ‘Are we doing this correctly?’” he said. “And, because all of this is brand-new, they can answer themselves.”

Martino and Hess encouraged employers to resort to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishing information for recommended guidelines, because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not issued specifics to the COVID reopenings.

Hess said GM has a “no-mask, no-work” policy. He also said there will be challenges throughout the workday when it comes to eating, drinking, smoking and getting manufacturing work done.

“You’ll need to put plastic over some chairs to create 6 feet of separation, but your employees will be able to have lunch together — you might have to talk a bit louder,” he said.

Hess said GM employees who felt uneasy about coming back to work or who had underlying health conditions, adding to their anxiety, were directed to its human resources department to discuss options.

“The important thing was to ensure them that their jobs would be ready for them when they were ready to return,” he said.

Kathleen Connelly, attorney at Westfield-based law firm Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper P.C., commenting outside of the one-hour webinar, said the No. 1 question that her clients have been asking in regard to office reopenings is how to deal with employees who are reluctant to return to work due to a generalized fear of COVID contraction.

“Employees returning to the workplace continue to have significant leave protection for COVID and non-COVID related absences through December 2020,” she said. “Under the CARES Act, employees have 10 days of Paid Emergency Sick Leave and 12 weeks of Paid Expanded Family Leave for qualifying COVID-related absences.

“Additionally, employees continue to have New Jersey Earned Sick Leave benefits, traditional unpaid federal Family and Medical Leave Act and New Jersey Family Leave Act rights for qualifying absences upon a return to duty.

“Although these employees are not protected and may be terminated if they refuse to return, employers are in need of ‘all-hands-on-deck’ when they reopen for business.”

Employers should communicate with these employees the measures they have taken to minimize the risk of COVID exposure to encourage these employees to return, Connelly added.

“If possible, employers should also consider alternative work arrangements for these employees, such as remote working or a modified work schedule,” she said.

Connelly added that employers may be inundated with requests for continued remote working unrelated to COVID fears, a situation that may or may not be feasible or desirable depending on the nature of the business.

“As employers are welcoming employees and the general public back into the workplace, they must continually keep in mind their obligation under OSHA to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause serious harm, which includes COVID-19,” Connelly said.

To avoid liability under OSHA and negligence claims in the event of a workplace exposure, employers must implement the recommendations issued by both the CDC and OSHA for cleaning and disinfecting the workplace, modifications to the physical layout of the workplace (e.g., high-efficiency air filters and increased ventilation, physical barriers, rearranging workstations) and behavioral policies (e.g., continued remote working, employee screening, social distancing protocols, wearing of masks) designed to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure, Connelly said.

“If an employer is compliant with the guidelines from federal, state and local governments, it may successfully shield itself from any claims that it negligently exposed employees and members of the public to the virus.”

Hess pointed to the Environmental Protection Agency website for a list of what chemicals are acceptable for use when cleaning the office environment.

All recognized that there will be added costs associated with physical modifications for the reopenings, but that employers have little choice but to make them.

New ventilations systems and physical barriers will require significant expenditures,” Connelly said. “On the behavioral side, screening protocols such as temperature-taking and health questionnaires before entry to the workplace will result in a loss of productivity and increased wage costs, because hourly employees must be paid for the time spent engaging in these activities.”

Martino said that, while larger firms might be better equipped to deal more immediately with these unique challenges, smaller companies might have to start with the basics.

“There will be hardships in terms of cost for smaller businesses,” Hess said. “But you have to do it to protect your company and your employees.”

Tuesday, Murphy emphasized that he is not in any way requesting or recommending that everyone return to the workplace.

Those decisions, he said, will be up to individual employers — and he said he expects that many companies will keep their employees at home.

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