Even if your team isn’t returning to the workplace anytime soon, you’ll still want to update your employee policies to help navigate the difficulties of COVID-19. If your team is returning to the office shortly, or already has, it will be even more imperative to do some HR planning and establish policies that you, your management, and employees can fall back on as the pandemic continues to unfold. This article will help you be one step ahead of workplace adversity and stay in compliance with new COVID legislation and travel orders. This article will also cover some of the best HR strategies you can start implementing today.
Employee policies just for COVID
MP’s HR consulting team is advising clients to create and amend current policies to include in a COVID-specific employee handbook addendum. You should articulate exactly what will be done to handle certain situations that may arise from the pandemic. You can use language like ‘until further notice’ to denote that these policies will only be in effect as you deal with the effects of the pandemic. Here are some of the key topics you may want to address:
- Accommodations for high risk employees
- Safety in the workplace
- Wage and hour policies
- Employment authorization verification policy
- FMLA expansion & emergency paid leave
- Business and personal travel policies
- Telecommuting or work from home policy
- Hour reductions
- Furloughs & temporary layoffs
Additionally, you’ll want to make sure you add in temporary policies in accordance with the FFCRA. This legislation applies to most companies with fewer than 500 employees.
Policies should clearly specifiy:
- Who is eligible for sick leave or expanded FMLA
- How much they will be compensated (depending on their circumstances)
- When the law (and thus these policies) are set to expire (December 31st, 2020, as of now)
- The fact that employees’ positions will be protected despite taking leave
- The forms and documentation that employees need to fill out for leave related to COVID
If your team will be in the workplace, you will want to have written policies to help promote safety for everyone. Make sure you consult CDC and state guidelines, which are ever-changing, as you create these policies.
Important safety topics to address include: Here are some suggested topics to discuss:
- Health screenings, temperature checks, and COVID-testing requirements if you choose or are mandated to do these types of screenings. Make sure employees have plenty of warning about these new measures and don’t forget to keep their health information private and secure.
- Social distancing practices, methods for staggering breaks and work shifts and protocols for cleaning and sanitizing. It’s also a good idea to post reminders of these policies in highly visible areas around the workplace.
- Visitor policies could be invaluable. Decide if you will ban all visitors, put restrictions on how many are allowed, or if you’ll require health prescreening or advance notice.
- Create language where you explicitly state that it will be every employees’ goal to prevent the spread of COVID.
- Create a policy for what steps will be taken if somebody at work is diagnosed with COVID. How do they report this? What will happen for that employee, but also consider what you’ll do to prevent further spread and how and when everyone can return to the workplace.
Employee policies that already exist but must be modified for COVID
Some policies will only need some tweaks that you can note will only be applicable during the pandemic. Again, you can use language like ‘until further notice’ or something that doesn’t give a specific date, as we don’t know when the COVID crisis will be truly resolved. Update these sections in your handbook, especially if your team will be in the workplace in some capacity.
Here are some policies you will want to review and modify for COVID:
- Telecommuting: If you don’t have one already, you absolutely need to create a policy for remote workers. If you have one, you can update it to reflect the current, pandemic circumstances. Clearly write out who is eligible to work remotely, what will be done to ensure your company’s safety from hackers, what or if any work-from-home expenses will be reimbursed, and expectations for productivity. If you will be monitoring employees’ computers, phones, etc. for productivity, you need to notify them of this.
- Wage and hour: Clearly write out the timekeeping procedures you’ll be using for employees, especially if nonexempt employees are working remotely. You must make sure you’re apprised of exactly how many hours employees are working if they’re non-exempt so you can be paying them for all time worked. (You should also make the approval process for overtime clear.) You’ll also need to pay for the time employees spend getting COVID screenings if they need them to come to the workplace. Depending on your location, you my also be responsible for state-specific ‘reporting time pay,’ which is when an employee reports to work but is not provided with the expected hours of work (perhaps because they’re sent home sick with COVID-like symptoms).
- Attendance and scheduling: Outline your expectations for responsiveness and availability, but make sure you allow for some flexibility right now. Employees may be dealing with childcare, sick family members, or other COVID-related situations. Include language encouraging employees who are sick to stay home from work at this time. You want to ensure that employees do not fear that they will be penalized for missing work if they are experiencing symptoms. You also want to include language to help prevent burnout. Make sure employees still take their regular meal or rest breaks and discourage off the clock work.
- Business travel: If you have travel policies already, they’ll be changed extensively for COVID. Establish what is essential and nonessential travel. You may want to restrict any travel to high risk areas. You can also restrict what an employee does on a business trip, requiring them to act in a safe manner to avoid COVID risks. You can provide reimbursements for cars to cut down on use of public transportation. You can also reconsider travel at all and cancel business trips, recall company vehicles, etc.
- Personal travel: This will be a fraught, but important topic. Create a policy that is responsive to any travel bans that are applicable if an employee is reporting to work. You can also write and share a memo on this topic. Set clear expectations that employees also follow COVID safety measures outside of work like wearing masks, social distancing, and hand washing. As an employer you have the right to approve or deny vacation requests, even retroactively. So, you may want to consider adding this to your policy. Take care not to hurt employee morale, but you’ll want to err on the side of safety. This is especially true for some locations, where employers will be responsible for paying for leave to quarantine after a vacation to a high-risk area.
Employee policies for paid leave amid COVID
Almost every aspect of your PTO policy will need to be updated right now. There are some policies, like vacation and personal time that might seem untouched by COVID. However, these policies can and should be revisited for responsiveness to the changing circumstances. Firstly, you’ll want to encourage employees to take time off, so they don’t burn out. Because travel is harder to do, employees may be trying to save PTO for a time when the pandemic might be more under control. However, travel bans have only begun to be created and COVID may continue to be a concern for the foreseeable future. Besides pushing people to take time off to avoid burnout, you also may want to request they do it, or even start requiring it, because you run the risk of everyone taking their PTO simultaneously as the year ends.
You can do a few things to deal with this situation proactively. You can create a new policy that has fixed blackout dates, like holidays or the last few weeks of the benefit year. You can also cap the amount of PTO that will be carried over in 2020. You can limit, defer, or stop future accruals (just make sure you’re within compliance for state and federal laws.) You may want to consider creating a use-it-or-lose-it policy for vacation, but check with HR consulting to weigh your options. Some states ban these policies. And as mentioned earlier, you also may wind up with everyone trying to take vacation at the same time or run the risk of damaging employee morale. Something that could be more popular with employees is to offer a pay-out of accrued PTO at a full or partial rate. It’s important to note that managers should lead by example. If you want employees to take vacation time and feel comfortable doing it, their manager needs to be doing that, too.
State and federal mandated leaves may also be impacted by COVID. Sick, disability, parental, and FFCRA-specific leaves should be in your employee policies. However, be sure that you consider amending these policies to address the interplay between these LOAs and COVID. Note that the CARES Act, as well as state guidelines expands some of these benefits. Even if COVID is your workforce to be inundated, you need to honor sick, disability, parental, and maternity leave requests as you would pre-COVID.
Changes to benefits policies post the CARES Act
The CARES Act has expanded employees’ abilities to make changes to their employer-sponsored health coverage, health FSAs, and dependent care assistance programs mid-year now, even outside of the typical parameters. They do not need a qualifying event. The CARES Act also expanded qualified medical expense rules that apply to various tax-advantaged accounts to now include menstrual products and over the counter medications as reimbursable expenses. These changes are retroactive back to January 1, 2020. Deadlines for COBRA election notice and payment periods are now extended from March 1, 2020 to 60 days after the end of the outbreak period. The outbreak obviously hasn’t ended yet, so this date is unknown. Payments can be made on COBRA as late as 30 days after the end of the outbreak.
Group health insurance has also been impacted. The CARES Act has revised eligibility requirements for employees so they can still be on insurance during a layoff or furlough. The ACA requires employees to reinstate anybody back on the plan who has been on a furlough of less than 13 weeks. Your company may be facing some challenges recouping costs for employee health insurance premiums. Decide if you’ll create a staggered payment plan for employees if they’ve been furloughed or if you’ll just eat the cost yourselves. Put this in writing and notify workers ASAP so they’re not surprised by any unexpected payments.
The last changes you need to know about to update your benefits are surrounding 401Ks. Modifications to eligibility requirements, loan limits, withdrawal penalty tax and repayment deadlines have been made to ease the financial burden on both employees and employers during this trying time.
Because of these recent changes to group benefit plan legislation, employers should work with their brokers and carriers to update their Summary Plan Descriptions to reflect these revisions.
Changes to consider making to your employee policies
Some of these changes will help save your company money and others will not. The ones that don’t will generally help you support your employees better through this difficult time, though. Employee morale is a valuable resource that will pay in dividends for years to come, and providing your team with thorough, consistent, and equitable policies will create a new level of clarity and accountability for your employees as we tackle the obstacles of the pandemic together.
- 401k plans: Work with your broker to see if you can revise eligibility to include laid off or furloughed employees. If your company is having a tough time financially, you may want to suspend or reduce the 401k match for non-elective contributions. Make sure you update any of your 401k plan documents and policies in your handbook.
- Wellness benefits: If you don’t have an EAP program for employees, you may want to start one. You may also want to look into MP’s own wellness services for clients. Reconsider gym reimbursements, especially if gyms are closed in your area. Make arrangements for in-office preventative health screenings like flu shots if you can. Lastly, consider adding telehealth benefits.
- Check over all employee policy changes for potential discrimination. Make sure you’re not discriminating against workers with changes or in the way you implement new policy changes!
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