Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Organizations are adapting to the COVID-19 environment in a variety of ways, from allowing workers to continue working remotely to making physical changes in buildings for those returning. But one area that is extremely challenging is accommodating employees who must care for children at home.
Despite the reopening of schools within the next several weeks, many children will likely still be attending at least some classes remotely. Daycare and afterschool services may also continue to be closed. The need for parents to be home to care for their children may become a long-term proposition. The question is, how are employers handling these workers?
“This is a tough one,” said Erin Penland, Benefits Supervisor for Designer Brands. “We have a discussion [planned for] next week on how to support working parents … I wish we had an answer for this, but the truth is we don’t know yet.”
“We are trying to figure out how to address that,” echoed Bindia Onik, Sr. Benefits Manager for AbbVie, a biopharmaceutical company. “We haven’t come across a great way to address this yet.”
Onik and Penland were among the panelists for Masked and Confused: Welcoming Back Your Workforce, the kickoff session of the Disability Management Employer Coalition’s Virtual Annual Conference. The speakers discussed changes they’ve made to the physical environment and how they are addressing expectations and concerns of their employees and customers, and offered up some legal tips.
Despite the desire to get back to normal, many employees are wary about returning to their workplaces.
“As a smaller, high tech and mainly remote organization we did a survey. Out of 64 employees only 16 wanted to come back,” said Seth Turner, chief Strategy Officer for AbsenceSoft. “We are seeing three to four a day [in the office]. The number was much lower than expected and there is a lower attendance from those who wanted to return.”
Many organizations are continuing to allow or even encourage their workers to work from home. But in some cases that is not feasible. Organizations may be hard pressed to deal with hose workers who say they are just not comfortable returning to the work environment.
“Just being uncomfortable or concerned is not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Family Medical Leave Act … you don’t get FMLA just to avoid exposure,” said Marti Cardi, an attorney and VP for Product Compliance at Matrix Absence Management. “The sticky question there is what about someone who has a high-risk condition, so has more than a discomfort. The Department of Labor’s Question and Answer [page] makes no special exception for high risk conditions.”
The employers say they are trying to be as flexible as possible. AbbVie, for example provides incentives for their manufacturing workers to be on site, so there are fewer cases of employees not wanting to come in. Employees in the corporate office are allowed to work remotely if they are not comfortable — at least for a while.
“We reassess every 30 days to see if anything has changed,” Onik said. “Our big areas are those with underlying health issues, along with [concerns for family members], and those with childcare issues and their own personal readiness. Some [employees] just don’t feel comfortable and we want to make sure they are comfortable. If they need to work from home longer we are supportive of that.”
Designer Brands has workers in the field who are at high risk of contracting the virus, or are concerned because they live with elderly relatives. While these employees initially received paid emergency leave, that ended after two weeks. Now they generally must be unpaid or use their PTO. “We’re trying to be as flexible as we can but it’s something we are constantly working through,” Penland said. “If a manger chooses to stay out and it’s been five months, what do we need to do for that store?”
Workers who are at a high risk for contracting the virus due to underlying conditions might need accommodations to be able to do their jobs. Someone with well controlled diabetes, for example, may need to reduce their exposure — either by working from home or having more isolation at work. But the speakers said that unless these employees ask for support, do not reach out to them.
“We admonish our clients and so does the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: don’t be paternalistic, even if you know they are pregnant or have a high risk condition. Let them come to you,” advised Cardi. “Someone with a high risk condition identified by the CDC is likely to also be a disability.”
From requiring masks, frequent hand washing and social distancing to temperature checks each time someone enters a building, organizations are making a variety of alterations to keep employees and the public protected from the virus.
Designer Brands just installed an automatic temperature sensor that scans people as they walk through the front door and alerts the receptionist, to prevent exposure. AbbVie checks the temperature of employees in their individual cars as they arrive at the site, then gives each a wrist band indicating they do not have a fever.
AbsenceSoft asks employees to sign a form stating they have no fever or symptoms of the virus and uses a database to track that information. Other organizations require workers to fill out forms upon entering the building stating whether they have symptoms or potential exposure, and that they will contact management or HR if that changes during the course of the day.
Both Onik and Penland said their companies are trying to make their facilities as touchless as possible. Designer Brands even provides styluses for everyone to use on touchscreens for doors, water fountains, etc.
The companies are limiting close contact among employees as much as possible. “In our elevators we have a two-person maximum capacity,” Onik said. “It’s lined off with tape showing where you can stand.”
Common areas, such as break rooms and conference rooms are generally either closed or limited to a certain number of people. AbbVie’s lunch area is now grab-and-go, so workers are not standing in line in close quarters. Those who go out to lunch must undergo a temperature check before returning, something allowed by law.
“Absolutely, you can test if you want,” Cardi said. “The EEOC is all over approval of [doing a] survey prior to entering the workplace; ‘have you been exposed or had symptoms?’ But they cannot ask or require employees to take the antibodies test that shows if they previously have had COVID.”