Navigating Covid-19 in the New Year: Tips for Employers
By Hannah D. Stetson
Associate, Turner Padget Graham & Laney PA, Columbia office
As employers continue to tackle the ever-evolving challenges associated with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the start of a new year provides a fresh opportunity to reevaluate existing Covid-19 policies and procedures. At the start of the pandemic, employers quickly navigated various stay-at-home orders, safety and sanitation recommendations, and remote and/or adjusted work schedules to assist in reducing the spread of Covid-19 and maintain safe workplaces. Employers were hopeful that the close of 2020 would bring us closer to the return to some semblance of normalcy, both in the workplace and society as a whole. However, in South Carolina — as with the rest of the country — the number of Covid-19 confirmed cases as 2021 begins are at an all-time high, with no clear end in sight.
While employers and employees alike are understandably discouraged by the continued effects of the pandemic, the onus is on employers to actively combat “Covid-19 fatigue” in the workplace. This fatigue can lead to complacency, which often results in inconsistent or ineffective implementation or enforcement of policies leading to safety and morale issues. To overcome this fatigue and ensure continued promotion of a safe and productive workplace, employers should consider taking the following three steps as 2021 begins.
Reevaluate and Reassess
A new year is an opportune time for employers to reassess current policies and procedures relating to Covid-19, including but not limited to policies requiring and/or encouraging the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing and remote work options as well as policies relating to employee illness and/or Covid-19 exposure and close contacts. Employers should review the most-updated Covid-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Operational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and any other relevant state or federal agency for guidance when assessing these policies.
For example, on December 16, 2020, the EEOC issued guidance relating to recently approved Covid-19 vaccines. On a broad level, the guidance generally supports the conclusion that employers can require employees to receive the Covid-19 vaccine as a condition of employment, subject to certain exceptions. The guidance further addresses issues ranging from whether an employer can request proof of a vaccination from an employee to navigating requests for accommodations relating to the vaccine, including disability and/or religious-based exemptions.
Due to the ever-changing legal landscape relating to the pandemic, an employer should consult with legal counsel to ensure its policies are compliant with current laws and guidelines and tailored to its specific industry and needs.
Train and Communicate
After ensuring appropriate policies are in place, employers must train and educate leaders, managers, and/or supervisors on these policies. The purpose of this training is twofold — (1) to ensure that the policies are understood, complied with and successfully modeled by leaders in the organization, and (2) to ensure that the policies are effectively communicated by those in leadership to all employees in the organization. Setting positive examples from the top can help to overcome Covid-19 fatigue at all levels. Keeping open lines of communication with employees can further combat complacency.
Enforce and Encourage
After the policies are enacted or reaffirmed and communicated to all employees, employers must enforce policies consistently and apply policies equally to all employees. An employer’s failure to enforce and consistently apply its own policies can not only affect employee morale but can also lead to potential legal liability. Consistent enforcement, coupled with encouragement and positive feedback to compliant employees, will help promote safety and productivity in the new year.
Taking these steps will better prepare an employer to face the Covid-19 challenges that remain in 2021.
Hannah D. Stetson is an associate in Turner Padget Graham & Laney PA’s Columbia, South Carolina office, where she is a member of the Workplace Litigation Team. She can be reached at 803-227-4240 or by email at [email protected].