Winstead hosted a webinar entitled “Returning to Work: Employer Considerations.” The event, which was presented by Winstead shareholder Taylor E. White, explored the challenges associated with returning to an in-person setting in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. During the webinar, Taylor discussed how organizations can minimize legal exposure and the best practices for coming back to the office, among a number of other topics. Here are some of the key takeaways from the event:
- Before returning to the workplace, it is imperative for companies to have a plan of action. Organizations should ensure that they consult government guidance when creating it. Additionally, they should think about establishing a return-to-work committee to help ensure a smooth transition back to the workplace and manage the implementation of the plan.
- It is important to take the concerns of employees into consideration before returning to the office. There are so many fears employees have before coming back to work in an in-person setting, including contracting COVID-19, potentially getting their families and friends sick, and spreading the virus within their communities. The concerns of the workforce need to be considered and organizations need to take account for and address various personal factors from age-related concerns of a potentially at-risk employee to the needs of those who have underlying medical conditions or sincerely held religious beliefs impacting the application of safety protocols to them.
- As noted, employees are navigating many fears as it relates to coming back into work—and this means communication is key. Organizations need to be transparent and keep their employees up to date with the latest information about COVD-19. This includes sharing government fact sheets and resources, and providing information about employee assistance programs and the logistics about the company’s return-to-work plan.
- When it comes to returning to the office, organizations need to understand the ins-and-outs of OSHA’s COVID-19 enforcement. To address this, they should assess the risk of returning to the office for their employees, provide education and training, and require both proper sanitation of the workplace and appropriate personal protective equipment. Further, there should be a hierarchy of administrative and engineering controls established to mitigate COVID-19 hazards in different work areas, and a plan to address safety-related complaints. Organizations should be sure document their efforts to be compliant with OSHA requirements and be mindful of new requirements.
- Organizations returning to in-office work also need to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The three main requirements employers need to keep in mind are (1) not discriminating or retaliating against employees with covered disabilities, (2) providing reasonable accommodations for employees with covered disabilities, except in cases where doing so would constitute an undue hardship, and (3) ensuring that any inquiries about medical conditions are related to an employee’s job and “consistent with business necessity.”
- Right now, you are hearing about more and more organizations that are mandating vaccinations as a prerequisite for returning to the workplace. It is important to keep in mind that employer vaccine mandates are permitted, but companies also need to accommodate those who have covered disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs impacting vaccinations.
- With employees returning to an in-person work setting, there will naturally be issues that arise centered around leave. For organizations, it is critical to keep in mind that there are federal, state, and local laws that need to be complied with as it relates to granting employee leave.