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How to Update Your Employee Handbook for COVID-19

Chances are that your workplace policies have changed significantly over the past few months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe you have implemented a new work from home policy, or perhaps you have new health and safety requirements as required by state law. Whatever the new policies may be, your employee handbook should be updated to clearly reflect them.

Formalize Polices, Even Temporary Ones

Even if some of the new policies are temporary in nature, it's still a good idea to update your written employee guidelines in the short term so that employees are aware of their rights and expectations. This could take the form of an addendum to your existing employee handbook so that you can go back to the original policies in the future.

Here are the issues that you will want to address in your updated employee handbook or addendum:

Leave and Paid Time Off Policies

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which went into effect on April 1 and is set to expire on Dec. 31, requires employers with under 500 employees to provide paid leave for employees affected by COVID-19.

The FFCRA requires employers to give employees time off for COVID-19-related matters such as getting treatment for the illness and taking care of children whose schools or daycares are unavailable due to COVID-19.

This paid time off is 100% recoverable through payroll tax credits for employers. Make sure your policies are up to date with what is required in order for employees to take paid time off under the law.

Requests for Accommodations

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) issued guidance for employers on handling requests for accommodations related to the novel coronavirus, such as in cases where employees are reluctant to return to work because they are at higher risk for severe illness caused by COVID-19.

The EEOC advised that there are reasonable accommodations that can be made, without resulting in undue hardship on behalf of the business, for employees whose work can only be performed at the worksite. For example, employers can install Plexiglas barriers and follow other solutions suggested by CDC guidance on limiting exposure in the workplace.

The EEOC suggested visiting the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website for free help with questions regarding workplace accommodations and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Telecommuting Policies

If your workplace didn't have a telecommuting or work-from-home policy before, you likely do now. Maybe you plan to keep it in place permanently, or maybe just for the time being, but either way, you should have the policy carefully spelled out so that employees understand what is expected of them and what options they have, including:

  • Which positions are eligible for work from home
  • What kind of flexibility is allowed when telecommuting (such as with hours and availability)
  • What technology (such as WiFi) and/or equipment is required and who is responsible for paying for it
  • How long the telecommuting policy will be in place
  • What the production expectations are of employees who telecommute

Keep in mind that telecommuting can be used as a reasonable accommodation for employees who are more at risk of severe illness caused by COVID-19.

Just make sure that certain employees are not asked to continue working from home based on characteristics that are part of a protected class such as race, religion, national origin, age, or pregnancy. Employers are not allowed to preemptively keep certain employees out of the workplace because they are at higher risk, according to the EEOC.

Health and Safety Specific to COVID-19

There are many health and safety policies to consider, such as requiring employees to remain six feet apart or mandating the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Your health and safety policies should be in line with your state and local law, and follow the guidance of public health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The EEOC has said that employers can:

  • Ask employees who report being sick about their symptoms in an effort to learn if they have COVID-19 symptoms
  • Ask employees to report if they have tested positive for COVID-19
  • Let other employees know if they have been exposed, per OSHA workplace safety guidelines
  • Take temperature checks of employees following the EEOC's guidance

These actions are not in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so long as all medical information is stored in confidential medical files, separate from the employee's personnel file, the EEOC advised.

Your employee handbook or written policy should outline what kind of health and safety measures will be taken to combat the spread of COVID-19, including how medical information will be collected and stored.

How to Communicate Your New Policies to Employees

In this unique time of upheaval, employees need clear and consistent policies that they can rely on. Communication is key when it comes to modifying workplace polices. Transparency and explaining the "why" behind policies are also important. Employers should ask for feedback from employees when possible to engage employees and help foster commitment to the new ways of doing things.

Next Steps

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