Within a matter of a few days, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has affected almost every aspect of our everyday lives. For employers, figuring out what they should do in terms of their employees is a daily struggle.

Here are 4 practical tips for employers during COVID-19.

1. Take safety precautions.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires you to provide a safe workplace for your employees and already has published detailed guidance and information about the coronavirus here.

While some of these may seem obvious, you should reinforce good hygiene practices in the workplace with employees that will help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. These include:

• Discussing usual practices such as “wash your hands for at least 20 seconds,” “stay home if you’re sick,” and “cough into tissue, never your hands.”

• Removing access to communal cups, dishes and silverware;

• Screening, limiting, or staggering visitors to your office, and moving in-person meetings to video conferences;

• Reviewing your cleaning operations to ensure you are disinfecting frequently touched areas such as door handles, elevator buttons and bathroom keys, which may require reviewing your lease to determine what your duties and obligations are as a tenant.

2. Establish an operating procedure for telecommuting.

Many employers are encouraging employees who do not need to be in the office to work remotely. While it is a good option, you should create an operating procedure for working from home before sending your employees to work from home.

• For hourly employees, your policy should address how they will clock in and out so you can keep an accurate time record.

• Your policy should also set expectations about daily work hours, availability during the work day, communication with co-workers and supervisors, security of confidential information, and use of company property at home.

If your business can’t support telecommuting or you have employees who can’t work from home, consider staggered work shifts, implementing a “closed-door” policy, or other options that increase your employees’ ability to social distance themselves from the public and each other.

3. Understand your options.

Many employers are facing the possibility of temporary office closures during the coronavirus pandemic. So, what is the difference between a furlough and a layoff?

Employees who have been furloughed are subject to recall and can expect to return to their job after a certain period of time. Furloughs are typically found in seasonal businesses or industries where much of the labor is unionized (e.g. car manufacturing).

For most private employers in Texas, however, there isn’t much difference between the two because Texas is an employment at-will state. An employee can accept a new job after being furloughed or laid off and the employer can decide not to recall the employee. Likewise, an individual can file for unemployment after being furloughed or laid off if they are being not being paid wages.

Although the term “furlough” may make the medicine go down smoother, it’s essentially a layoff, and acting like it is may save you from liability down the road. Just because an employee is furloughed doesn’t mean wage and hour laws no longer apply. Don’t ask furloughed or laid off employees to field phone calls, answer emails, or perform any work for the business without paying minimum wage and overtime – if applicable. While not much is certain, one thing is sure: this crisis will end. The employment decisions you make now may be what sets you up for success in the future.

4. Keep up to date.

It is difficult for employers to make important decisions generally, let alone in the midst of a pandemic. We recommend you monitor official sources such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and your local public health department daily. As far as new employment laws, we recommend staying in touch with your labor and employment attorney. As local, state and the federal governments respond to the coronavirus, Pham Harrison will be here to keep you up to date.

Caroline Harrison is managing partner and Spencer Mainka is an associate at Fort Worth’s Pham Harrison. https://phamharrison.com/

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