COVID-19: Protecting Workplaces and Employees During Reopening

As US states start to lift stay-at-home orders, it’s time for companies to take action to make their physical locations safe for returning employees. They should also prepare for potential challenges as we enter a new normal, according to participants in the eighth installment of Marsh’s COVID-19 webcast series.

Organizations’ focus should be on keeping employees safe. As much as possible, employees need to practice physical distancing, which has been proven effective, said Dr. Dave Zieg, Mercer’s Clinical Services Leader. This might require creative strategies involving shift design, alternating days in the office, and rethinking workplace layout and design.

Employers will need to step up cleaning and hygiene procedures, which can help employees feel safe, said Larry Pearlman, senior vice president in Marsh Risk Consulting’s Workforce Strategies Practice. With some employees uncomfortable about returning to the workplace, procedures need to be transparent, visible, and regularly audited.

Greg Rodway, senior vice president in the Workforce Strategies Practice, noted that visual cues will help assure employees that the premises are safe. These can include dashboards showing cleaning schedules and daily cleaning status, and colored wristbands that employees wear after completing screening.

Employers may turn to pre-screening of employees to detect and prevent those with COVID-19 symptoms from entering the workplace, a step highlighted in Marsh’s new guide on safely reopening workplaces, available starting May 26. Measures could include temperature checks on employees, which, as Dr. Zieg noted, are technically easy, although have limitations since pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic individuals can be contagious without having a fever.

It should be noted that temperature checks could open employers to a number of claims, explained Kelly Thoerig, Marsh’s US Employment Practices Liability and Wage and Hour Coverage Leader. These include issues surrounding privacy and employee confidentiality; discrimination claims if employers are not consistent with who they are testing; and wage and hour concerns related to the time employees spend waiting to have their temperature taken or awaiting a secondary assessment.

Temperature checks are only one of multiple changes that employees are likely to see when they return to their physical workplaces, making communication paramount, said David Slavney, communication and change management consulting partner at Mercer. He stressed the importance of having clear processes in place that allow employers to be agile in delivering information during a rapidly evolving situation, both to those who return to the workplace and employees who continue to work remotely. Information should be easy to access in one place. Additionally, managers need to be equipped with a toolkit that explains new policies and how to address COVID-19 workforce issues.

Aside from preventative measures, employers will need to prepare for the possibility of employees becoming sick. Dr. Zieg noted that sick employees should immediately be separated from others and sent home. In case a sick employee requires isolation and transport, businesses should have well-defined and well-communicated procedures in place. Additional procedures should be in place for cleaning areas a sick employee used, and for identifying and alerting potential close contacts, all while maintaining confidentiality.

Responding to audience questions, Dennis Tierney, claims director in Marsh’s Workers’ Compensation Center of Excellence, noted that employers need to make sure the resources are in place at their third-party administrator or insurer to carry out a thorough investigation into any workers’ compensation claim related to COVID-19. He stressed the importance of taking a claims advocacy approach and showing compassion.