Coronavirus is spreading around the world, and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches Idaho. The impact on businesses of all sizes is inevitable. Starbucks closed stores in China. Apple saw disruptions in the manufacturing of iPhones, iPads, and computers.
While the degree of disruption caused by the disease remains unknown, employers must prepare as best they can. Only a small percentage of those infected will experience symptoms beyond the flu or a cold, so it’s possible the impact on employers will be similar to the flu season, with most businesses continuing to operate normally.
The larger issue facing employers is fear. If employees know that coronavirus is in their community, they may feel afraid to go to work, attend public gatherings, or meet with customers. Employers can prepare for this reality by supporting employees with these five plans and policies to support them if the worst-case scenario occurs.
Have a clear remote working policy. If employees already have the ability to work remotely, review the policy so that it can be carefully implemented for all employees in the event of a crisis. Employees who work from home will need guidance on how to juggle the distractions of a different location with work. They’ll need instructions on how to deal with printing documents, getting signatures, sending mail, and other tasks. It’s the duty of the employer to make it clear how employees fulfill their duties while working remotely.
Access to records. If possible, employers should make key documents available to employees even while they are outside the office. That said, accessing key documents poses a cybersecurity threat. Employees working on unsecure, public Wi-Fi networks are subject to hack. Make sure that servers housing important, sensitive documents cannot be accessed if an employee accesses the network from an unsecured location, even the employee’s own home. The password protecting a home network may not be as robust as necessary. The employer should come up with a clear policy on how and when the employee can access key documents remotely without compromising security.
The risk of taking work home. If your business employs hourly workers, be cautious of allowing these workers to perform work outside of the office. Hourly employees are only required to work certain hours per day and, in most states, are provided mandatory breaks under the law. If an employee is told to go home and chooses to take work along, the onus is on the employer to make sure no wage or hour violations occur.
Pass the hand sanitizer. If an employer requires employees to come to the office during the crisis, the business should ensure that it takes steps to protect the employees from the disease. This includes reminding employees to wash their hands and not touch their face. It might include providing sanitary wipes in conference rooms to wipe down surfaces after meetings take place. It could also mean canceling meetings or holding them by telephone or video conference, and limiting human contact until the crisis has subsided. If an employer fails to take these steps, an employee could claim that the employer created an unsafe working environment after he or she becomes sick.
Communication, not lawsuits. If the crisis causes disruptions in supply chains with the availability of workers, the employer must have a plan to deal with upset customers. The customer who calls and says their product wasn’t delivered deserves a clear, concise plan as to how and when the business will deal with the issue. Customers living in areas that are not significantly impacted by the crisis need a clear understanding as to why your business is experiencing difficulties, and how you’ll resolve them. Clear communication is the best way to avert a legal claim. If the customer understands that the business is doing all it can, he or she is less likely to pursue a claim for damages. A lack of communication will be an invitation to a lawsuit.
Many of the steps outlined above can apply not just to coronavirus, but also natural disasters such as storms, wars, or even worker strikes. The plan that an employer develops now for the coronavirus crisis can easily be applied across the board to a large number of potential disruptions to business. After all, the business that is most prepared is most likely to survive.
Luke Malek is a founding attorney at Smith + Malek, PLLC, a business law firm with offices in Boise, Coeur d’Alene, and Sandpoint. A former legislator representing North Idaho, Luke splits his time between Coeur d’Alene and Boise.