As COVID restrictions are lifting, more and more companies are requesting, and sometimes requiring, employees to return to the workplace. Here are 5 points to consider as you start to bring employees back.
- Employees are Entitled to a Safe Workplace
Under The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), employees are entitled to a workplace free of known health and safety hazards, and given that we are still in the throes of a deadly pandemic, employers need to take more steps to keep employees safe (https://www.osha.gov/workers). These include establishing and communicating a safety plan, which is required in some states, including New York (for a Safety Plan Template, go to: https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/NYS_BusinessReopeningSafetyPlanTemplate.pdf). Businesses should also institute policies about preventing the spread of infectious disease, which includes requiring employees to stay home when sick, wash their hands, clean their work station, etc.).
- Employees are Scared
Many people are scared to return to work, afraid of contracting the virus. They are concerned about being around co-workers who may not be vaccinated and feel it’s too soon to return to work. Others are worried employers will mandate they get the vaccine, which for a variety of reasons, they may not be comfortable doing. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that employers can mandate the vaccine, employees with underlying health issues, who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, nursing, or hold certain religious beliefs, may be exempt from being required to do so by their employers under federal and state laws. Whether or not to require employees get the vaccine should be given careful consideration, and if mandated, employers will need to engage in the “interactive process,” commonly used under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to understand employees’ concerns and whether or not they can reasonably accommodate their request to return to work without getting the vaccine. (https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws). Regardless of the decision the business makes, employers need to reassure employees that they will be safe and provide them with a clean and safe environment and a complaint procedure to express their concerns without fear of retaliation.
- Employees are Entitled to a Workplace Free from Harassment and Discrimination
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 67,448 charges of workplace discrimination in 2020, resulting in $439.2 million for victims. Retaliation, at 55.8% of claims, was the most frequently filed. Other charges include*:
- Disability: 24,324 (36.1%)
- Race: 22,064 (32.7%)
- Sex: 21,398 (31.7%)
- Age: 14,183 (21%)
- National Origin: 6,377 (9.5%)
- Color: 3,562 (5.3%)
- Religion: 2,404 (3.6%)
- Equal Pay Act: 980 (1.5%)
- Genetic Information: 440 (.7%)
*Note that these percentages add up to more than 100% because some charges allege multiple bases (https://www.eeoc.gov/newsroom/eeoc-releases-fiscal-year-2020-enforcement-and-litigation-data).
Some states, like New York, require employers to provide mandatory training to employees and managers; however, the requirement is only for sexual harassment training. Based on the above numbers and to ensure an equitable workplace for all, we recommend non-harassment/discrimination training that covers all of the protected classes on the federal and state level, which in New York, is more than 20 (https://www1.nyc.gov/site/cchr/law/the-law.page).
- Employees are Stressed
Even before the pandemic, Americans’ mental health was declining, with a significant increase in depression, anxiety and suicide. Add in the stresses related to COVID, political tension, and social injustice, just to name a few, and you will find that many are struggling just to get by another day (https://mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america). Employers need to take this into consideration when staff seems snippy or an employee requests a schedule change; people need to be afforded some understanding and flexibility. Providing your employees with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a benefit paid for by the employer that gives employees confidential support for personal and work-related problems, goes a long way in helping address and ease some of the root causes of their stresses and makes for a happier and more productive employee.
- Employees are Hard to Find
We used to say “good employees” are hard to find, but with the labor pool shrinking as Baby Boomers retire, college students extend their education, and some choose to stay on unemployment, we’ve dropped “good” from that old adage; it’s hard to find employees, period. This means that businesses are going to have to be more competitive to attract and retain talent, including offering flexible schedules and generous benefits. Continuous education and development is important to the younger generations entering the workforce as is the feeling that they are working for a company with purpose and values (https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/consumer-packaged-goods/our-insights/true-gen-generation-z-and-its-implications-for-companies#). Make sure to define your unique employment brand and market it; you’ll need it to staff appropriately. And be sure to adhere to the basics; outlining the job duties, treating employees with dignity and respect, and fairly and equitably compensating and rewarding employees for their performance.
For questions on this topic and support on helping your team return to work, contact us at info at enformhr.com.
Cristina Amyot is the president and CEO of EnformHR, LLC, a human resources consulting firm providing a range of customized HR services, helping companies protect and grow their businesses. In addition to conducting client seminars on topics like non-harassment/discrimination, interviewing and hiring top talent, and building high performance teams, Cristina also speaks to industry associations on a variety of HR topics.