Employers are charting paths to reopening workplaces in spite of the turbulence caused by the pandemic, and compliance frameworks are beginning to emerge, speakers said Aug. 5 at the 2020 Disability Management Employer Coalition Virtual Annual Conference.

As HR departments for essential businesses or customer-facing industries reopen, some questions are easier to answer than others at this stage, and though a framework for reopening workplaces does exist, there are still glaring unknowns.

“I don’t think any of us have all the answers,” said Seth Turner, chief strategy officer at leave management software company Absencesoft. “I don’t know that anybody does as the rules continue to change throughout the U.S.”

In some cases, workplaces that specialize in tasks that cannot be done remotely had longstanding practices that facilitated adoption of public health protocols. For example, biopharmaceutical company AbbVie’s manufacturing facilities maintained mask-wearing policies before the pandemic due to government regulations, said Bindia Onik, senior benefits manager at AbbVie.

Employers with customer-facing employees may see a greater degree of discomfort about reopening. Retailer Designer Brands has many associates who say they do not feel comfortable returning to work in stores, said Erin Penland, benefits supervisor at the company. Designer Brands originally granted one to two weeks of emergency leave to associates, but it is now offering unpaid personal leave unless associates use available paid time off. But it is not subjecting employees to attendance points, she said. “We’re trying to be as flexible as we can, but it is something we’re constantly working through.”

Simply being uncomfortable about COVID-19 is not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) nor the Family and Medical Leave Act, Marti Cardi, VP of product compliance at Matrix Absence Management, said during the presentation. But employers may need to provide an accommodation for someone who has a disability as defined under the ADA, she noted.

Speakers said their firms are largely turning to preventative measures and policies to ease the transition for workers. Of the six employers represented during the Aug. 5 presentation, all used temperature checks, and some took the idea further: Onik and Penland said their companies ask employees to do temperature checks before leaving home.

Some survey employees on whether they have experienced symptoms, others do not. Penland said Designer Brands is relying more so on “self-attestation” that associates are not sick before coming to work, and the company does not require workers to take a COVID-19 test before returning unless they have been diagnosed with the disease.

Manufacturing facilities, like those operated by Wisconsin-based Wausau Window and Wall Systems, are making physical adjustments. The company has added large curtain walls, taped off sections in common areas to promote social distancing and even set aside a “quarantine room” for employees who feel they have symptoms on the job, Abbie Jackson, HR and payroll coordinator at Wausau Window, said during a separate session of the conference. Hand sanitizers are placed near all entrances and doors, and masks are required as mandated by state law.

Wausau Window’s operations staff have also worked closely with managers to communicate clear reopening expectations, and it has conducted training with associates and supervisors to, among other things, boost their confidence. “Support top-down makes a big difference,” Jackson said. “Associates see that and realize everything’s going to be okay.”

Office Employees Adjust, Though Many Stay Home

Those working in corporate offices may find required adjustments more jarring than their counterparts in essential positions. Onik said that AbbVie’s corporate employees “aren’t accustomed” to the changes the company made to its office cafeteria spaces, while conference rooms in these spaces have been reduced to half capacity using space markers. There are also touchless water facilities and automated systems for coffee areas that dispense milk and half-and-half — employees used to share cartons.

AbbVie’s other sanitation measures include installing plexiglass in reception areas and putting disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer “on every possible area you can imagine,” Onik said. The company has a dedicated cleaning staff on deck to frequently sanitize common areas.

Penland said Designer Brands provided employees at its home office with styluses that can be used to operate everything from touchscreens to water fountains and coffee machines. Employees are encouraged to use Microsoft Teams rather than meeting in conference rooms, which have been kept at half capacity, while tables at the office cafe are kept to a two-person limit and have been pushed apart from each other.

And yet, others are going even further to enlist technology during the reopening process. Unum, an insurer, has installed anti-microbial film on certain high-touch areas like door handles at its offices, Jeff Scheckley, assistant VP of global business resiliency at the company, said during the presentation.

Still, most workers at these employers have opted not to return to corporate offices as of early August. Abscencesoft’s Turner said initial surveys of the company’s 64 workers found only 16 wanted to come back to the office. But reopening has led to only three to four employees showing up per day, he noted.

Across its global offices, Unum has returned approximately 10 to 20% of its employees, Scheckley said. He added that the company found three-quarters of its employee base that had moved remote was as or more productive working remote than in the office, while a quarter of employees were struggling to work remote. Remote challenges for Unum employees included poor or inadequate internet service and caring for children and family members, he said.

1 Big Unknown: Schools

There is one reopening subject that presenters seemed to have few answers for: what exactly will happen this fall as kids go back to school or are forced to continue distance learning due to school closures or delays?

Designer Brands is still going through brainstorm sessions on the subject, Penland said. A large portion of the retailer’s associates are working parents, and many are having trouble dealing with daycare closures. “The truth is, we don’t know yet how we’re going to work through this,” she said. “It’s a huge concern for us.”

Onik said AbbVie has not found a solution to the school issue, either: “I really hope we can find an answer soon.”

There are few legal parameters regarding the issues workers face due to the reopening of schools. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act does provide some relief in the form of paid leave for workers at businesses with fewer than 500 employees, but the law is due to sunset in less than five months. As the school year approaches, the U.S. Department of Labor “encourages employers to be flexible and acknowledge that workers are between a rock and a hard place,” Cardi said.

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