Reopening Offices During COVID-19

Topics: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The safety measures taken by individuals and businesses across the country to “flatten the curve” have helped lessen the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing is working, too. For example, Business Insider has reported that New York has seen a drop off in the number of new confirmed cases, providing a bit of light at the end of the Coronavirus tunnel.

Eventually, we will reach a point where the worst of COVID-19 is over, and it’s safe enough to begin returning to work; for most employees, however, it will most likely be a much different environment from before. Since we are still in the midst of the pandemic, it’s difficult to predict exactly what accommodations will ultimately need to be made, but here’s a closer look at some possible changes we might see and important issues to consider in anticipation of eventually returning to work.

Continuance of Social Distancing Measures

It’s not out of the question to expect many offices and other job sites to continue with some level of social distancing. New seating arrangements may need to be made, with more space in between employees (six feet apart in keeping in line with current social distancing measures, for example) and/or glass barriers in between workstations. A conference room originally designated for 10 people may now only allow for five at one time, and in some cases, meetings could be done entirely by teleconferencing. Office buildings may have a new limit on the number of people in an elevator at a time. The workspace layout could be shifted to accommodate a one-way flow of traffic, with markers placed on the floor, similar to what we’ve seen in grocery stores, to maintain adequate space between workers.

returning to work in the office

Many organizations adopted telecommuting policies to allow employees to keep working while the offices are closed. We recently discussed on our blog the benefits of working from home for both employers and employees and best practices to consider when adopting a telecommuting policy.

The unseen benefit to the shelter-in-place orders is that it provided companies with an opportunity to see how well employees could perform their jobs at home. Global Workplace Analytics expects more than 25% of employees to continue working from home even after it’s safe to come back to the office, and estimates that 25 to 30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021. Continuing with a telecommuting policy will help limit the number of employees at work at the same time, and allow for those in the office to spread farther apart from one another.

Health and Safety Changes

Property managers and company leaders may consider making updates to office buildings by installing new technology to provide access to rooms without the need to touch a handle or push a button. Hand-washing practices could become a regular part of almost every workplace, with signage posted throughout each office to remind employees. Hand sanitizer stands and disinfectant wipes may become a staple of every workplace. Updates to HVAC systems may be necessary to promote better air quality.

Additionally, employees may opt to continue wearing masks or other personal protective equipment, especially if their job duties require them to interact with the public. Using paper placemats for desk spaces to help mitigate some contact-based spread of COVID-19 on surfaces could become a regular practice. And maintenance staff cleaning at the end of each day may be ramped up.

Accommodations for Employees and Other Issues for Employers to Consider

It’s still very unclear how we will transition from a world of quarantine to “normal.” More than likely, the move back to everyday work life will be rolled out in stages; however, there are some reasonable assumptions we can make about safety and accommodations for employees returning to work.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), employers must make sure they provide a safe workplace. The pandemic presents a unique challenge because it is unlike anything businesses faced previously. The Act does not directly address a coronavirus pandemic, but recently OSHA has issued guidelines that employers and employees can take to minimize the spread of the virus and to keep their workplace safe. Many of these guidelines will still be applicable as the pandemic subsides, and we can expect to see updates and additional guidance from OSHA as shelter-in-place orders are lifted.

Employers should check their human resources policies and update as needed to be consistent with recommendations from state and federal workplace laws, especially for any changes that correspond with COVID-19. The Department of Labor and EEOC websites are helpful resources for staying up to date.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offer some supportive policies to consider:
  • Incorporating a non-punitive sick leave policy
  • Not requiring a positive COVID-19 test result or a doctor’s note to validate an employee’s sickness, qualify for sick leave or to return to work
  • If an employee does develop a COVID-19 infection after returning to work, employers need to inform employees of their possible exposure, maintain the confidentiality of the sick employee as per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and have the other employees follow the CDC Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure.
Additionally, an employee with a preexisting condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus would need to have reasonable accommodations made for them, such as allowing them to work remotely.

Mental Health Concerns

According to the CDC, mental health disorders are among the most significant health concerns in the U.S. Nearly one in five adults aged 18 or older reported any mental illness, and 71% of adults reported at least one symptom of stress, such as feeling overwhelmed or anxious.

Prior to the pandemic, employers had been faced with a need to provide mental health-related disability accommodations for their employees. It’s not unreasonable to expect that to increase even more once we return to work, so employers must be prepared to handle them.

Robert Pizarro, vice president of Commercial Specialty at AmTrust, recently shared his thoughts on ADA considerations in a post-COVID-19 environment.

“Employees may be hesitant to return to work after this pandemic. Employers should be cognizant of potential mental and/or emotional disabilities that rise to the level of an ADA-defined disability. Such disabilities must be analyzed to determine potential reasonable accommodations, which, in some circumstances, include additional time off and telework.”

Employers must work with employees to help them not only continue to be productive at work, but to help manage their mental health condition as well. Proper accommodations for your workplace and employees is crucial to consider not only for health and safety reasons, but for your organization itself. A failure to make adequate adjustments could open your small business up to legal action, so keep these issues in mind when we head back to the office.

Having an employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) policy in place is more important than ever as we await a post-COVID-19 work environment.

AmTrust is Here to Help Small Businesses

AmTrust offers our support to small businesses like yours during these uncertain times. We’ve created a library of resources regarding the coronavirus to help you stay informed, safe and healthy. For more information about our small business insurance solutions, please contact us today.

In addition, AmTrust offers a wealth of loss control resources, including an extensive library of safety training videos and materials related to a variety of hazards, as well as industry-specific resources. Visit our Loss Control page to learn more.

This material is for informational purposes only and is not legal, tax or business advice. Neither AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. nor any of its subsidiaries or affiliates represents or warrants that the information contained herein is accurate, appropriate or suitable for any specific business, tax or legal purpose. Readers seeking resolution of specific questions should consult their business, tax and/or legal advisors. Coverages may vary by location. Contact your local RSM for more information.

Time Zones