Employers should check Federal, State and Municipal guidance often for updates that impact their business and their employees. To help you stay on top of this rapidly evolving situation, Asure has compiled a list of Federal, State, U.S. Territorial, and select Municipality websites with coronavirus updates and guidance.
Sometime last fall, a novel coronavirus appeared in central China and quickly overwhelmed the healthcare system in Hubei Province. Many around the world have watched news reports as China instituted wide-spread social distancing policies, including locking down the city of Wuhan with its 11 million residents. Hundreds of millions of Chinese workers missed about a month of work, and the country is still in the process of getting its economy restarted.
Now the coronavirus is spreading more broadly around the globe. More than 60 countries have reported confirmed cases of the SARS-COV-2 virus and the illness it causes, which is called COVID-19. For the past week, the most active transmission has been occurring in South Korea, Italy, Iran, and China, and both South Korea and Italy have instituted quarantine and lock-down procedures.
There are many ways COVID-19 may impact employers and employees and several steps employers should take now—before the virus comes to your area—to prepare for contingencies.
What we know about COVID-19
Doctors and scientists are learning more each day about COVID-19 and rushing to publish studies and inform governments, employers and the public. Here are aspects of the virus that are widely agreed upon by researchers:
It’s a novel virus. This coronavirus started as an animal virus and developed the ability for human-to-human sustained transmission. Because people have never been exposed to it before, no one is immune from getting it.
People may be contagious before they look sick. Some people have been observed to have spread the virus through asymptomatic transmission either before they developed symptoms or without becoming symptomatic. This can make it difficult for people to know when to isolate themselves, because they don’t yet feel ill.
It has multiple modes of transmission. According to the CDC, this coronavirus can be spread by close contact, through respiratory droplets when infected persons cough and sneeze, and by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus (fomites). Additionally, studies have found virus in both urine and feces and one Chinese study indicated aerosolized (airborne) transmission could occur, however further study may be needed regarding these potential modes of transmission.
The elderly and people with underlying health conditions are most at risk. COVID-19 is more lethal than the seasonal flu, but less deadly than the SARS outbreak of 2003. Looking at the patterns of who becomes more severely ill and who has died, the greatest risk is for seniors and people of all ages who have underlying serious health conditions, especially diabetes, respiratory conditions, and cardiovascular disease.
Plenty of uncertainty remains
There’s still a lot we don’t know for certain about COVID-19, including the case fatality rate (estimates vary from below 1% to over 3%), the length of the incubation period, and exactly when infected people begin being contagious and stop being contagious. We don’t know exactly how infectious asymptomatic COVID-19 cases are and we aren’t sure how many people on average will go on to be infected by each confirmed case?
To add further complexity, some people test negative a number of times before finally testing positive, while others recover and receive a negative test only to receive another positive test later. Researchers are not sure what causes this.
Until we know more, it is sensible and prudent to be cautious (but not panicked) about COVID-19. Good sources of up-to-date information can be found at the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 websites.
Potential business impacts of coronavirus
Once COVID-19 begins spreading in a localized area, governments have been reacting with strong protocols that can be extremely disruptive to business operations. These have included:
Travel restrictions: Even before COVID-19 comes to your city, your employees may not be able to travel to affected countries around the world. This can disrupt planned meetings, trade shows, sales visits, and other events.
Above average absenteeism: Doctors describe the majority (80% or more) of COVID-19 cases as “mild” but because the disease is novel and highly infectious, all affected employees should stay home from work—probably for two weeks or more. This could lead to disruptive levels of absenteeism if COVID-19 spreads through your town and organization.
Public transportation shut downs: Public transportation poses a higher risk for transmission of the disease, so authorities might shut it down for a period of time. How will the employees who depend on it commute to work?
Full scale lockdown: If lock-down quarantines occur in your area, your company will experience 100% absence except for any remote workers. Most businesses would be required to shut down for a time—especially any businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, entertainment, hospitality, and retail.
Supply chain disruptions: If your business sells or manufactures items that are produced in whole or in part within affected areas, you could face disruptions in your supply chain that last up to a month or more.
Four steps employers can take now to prepare
Forward-thinking employers are dusting off disaster contingency plans, reviewing sick leave policies, and examining their supply chains. Here are five steps to help get your organization prepared for a potential outbreak of COVID-19 in your area:
1. Review your sick leave policy. In the event of an outbreak in your area, it is critical that any employees who have COVID-19 symptoms stay home from work. But there are several challenges, including employees who lack leave and employees who are unwilling to use it.
A recent survey found 70% of white collar professionals would go to work when they felt ill. The top two reasons for doing so were not wanting to fall behind and not wanting to sacrifice paid time off.
Not all employees receive sick leave as a benefit. Less than one-third of the lowest paid workers get paid leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Part-time employees are also less likely to have sick leave—only 26% of part-time workers at small businesses receive paid sick leave. State paid leave laws often vary by the size of the business. This reference chart highlights sick leave laws for all 50 US states.
As your business deals with potential absences due to coronavirus, you will need to decide if your leave policy needs adjustments. Will you offer sick leave to workers that normally don’t receive it? Will it be paid or unpaid (workers are less likely to take unpaid leave)? How will you handle any employees who end up under mandatory or voluntary quarantine?
2. Set up systems to enable employees to work from home. If your business is able to fully or partially continue operations through remote work, now is the time to roll it out as broadly as possible to employees. Have IT focus on implementing this goal right away. Communicate your expectations so employees understand extra remote work flexibility will be for a limited time.
3. Start communicating with employees early. Talk to your employees now. They may be worried and they need to know how the company plans to proceed. Include these areas in your communications:
Status of company policies about international and domestic business travel
Company expectations of workers who feel sick
Changes to absence policy or sick leave rules
Company continuity of operations plan in the event of a localized outbreak
Who will work remotely and how will they access systems
If some employees are essential and other groups will remain home, identify them.
4. Teach employees about COVID-19 precautions. Answer basic questions about how COVID-19 is spread and what steps employees can take to stay safe. For example, everyone should cover their mouth and nose if sneezing or coughing, people should wash their hands thoroughly and often, and anyone who feels ill should stay home and avoid exposing others. It may be helpful to circulate a video about how to properly wash hands and print some of the handwashing posters available from the CDC. At this time, masks are not recommended unless you are a healthcare worker.
With COVID-19, the world may be seeing the early stages of a pandemic. But we simply don’t know what that will mean yet. There is still a chance the virus could be contained to local epidemics, but scientists increasingly acknowledge that containment may not be possible.
Over communicate with your employees during this time. Some may be feeling stressed about what the news and worried about at-risk loved ones. Many will be concerned about possible government actions such as school closures or city lock-downs. They may have financial concerns about how they would afford to be off work for weeks at a time—especially if they won’t receive a paycheck.
Answer questions. Provide sensible, up-to-date guidance. Help employees know what to expect so they can rest easier about their jobs and take steps to ensure their own safety, in spite of scary headlines.