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Will businesses return to work or continue to work from home in California after COVID-19?

If there is one word that defines this pandemic, it is fear. It is understandable that most employees and even the healthy ones express their reservations about returning to the workplace, especially in areas around California where cases are spiking. As California rolls back its reopening plans, it is important for employers to understand the nuances of what may be a reoccurring trend.

As businesses begin to reopen this year with regulations to follow in a phased procedure, federal state, and local laws issued in response to COVID-19 continue to create new challenges for employers and employees. This reference guide is designed to provide a framework for California employers to work issues and assess situations they will face if they decide to reopen their establishments and workplaces including:

  • When and how businesses may reopen;
  • Pay and benefits issues; and
  • New COVID-19 specific workplace safety standards

Each employer’s return-to-work plan can be unique and tailored to continue to monitor applicable, industry-specific federal guidelines and guidance, state, country, and city levels as they prepare to reopen for as long as the pandemic persists. California employers are strongly encouraged to evaluate their current COVID-19 protocol to ensure compliance with the new standards, including adoption of a written COVID-19 Prevention Plan and update their existing procedures to remain compliant with the rapidly changing landscape.

As the COVID-19 health crisis continues and will continue to impact California’s employers, employees and their families. Below is a help guide for California employers in recalling employees from furlough and bringing employees back to the workplace after a work-from-home setup.

Physically Returning to Work

A. When and how you should bring employees back?

  1. Analyze and review California safety guidelines and requirements. A number of cleaning, social-distancing, and other operating requirements needs to be established and implemented to ensure continued worker safety upon reopening. Consult the checklist for employers for planning to reopen and return to the workplace for guidelines on all reopening issues and logistics.
  2. Take note of the work-from-home applicable to your operations, and keep in mind the phased reopening and possibility of renewed shutdowns.
  3. Provide reasonable and advanced notice to those returning to work and obtain written acknowledgement from employees with intent to return. Draft and finalize deadlines for selected rehires to return to work. Prepare a safety protocol for situations where an employee does not return timely (e.g. providing a grace period or count as automatic voluntary resignation or job abandonment) and apply it with consistency.

B.Workplace Safety

  1. Educate yourself about the standards for the industry and jurisdiction (federal, state, county, city)

2. State and county public health department orders impacting return to work. Determine which local public health    department applies to your establishment or worksite. The health department order determines specific responses required when there is possible and actual COVID-19 exposure in the workplace. Here are the local departments of public health in California.

Workplace cleaning and sanitizing

Frequently and thoroughly clean and disinfect all work areas, surfaces, restrooms, and common areas. If the employer relies on in-house staff to conduct disinfecting and cleaning, they must ensure that the staff is qualified and properly trained to perform services and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), clean materials and supplies, and safety training such as familiarization with possible chemical hazards.

If the employer relies on an outside contractor for disinfection and sanitation services, the employer needs to verify the contractor’s competency and compliance with the foregoing practices.

C. Safety and health communications plan

Employers are required to have an occupational health program and demonstrate that it is effective in practice. In relation to reopening businesses, employers should strongly develop and reinforce a communications plan around COVID-19 a comprehensive workplace safety guideline and reassure employees and customers. Safety and health communication plan may include components of:

  • Increased signage;
  • Employee safety meetings;
  • Safety training;
  • Periodic reminders concerning proper hygienic practices;
  • Auditing safe distancing requirements are being observed;
  • Prompt response to employee safety concerns

D. Social & Physical Distancing

Discourage employees from sharing office equipment and devices to institute protocols for handling, cleaning, and sanitation. Consider assigning physical barriers and control the number of employees who can access a particular workplace area. Implement social and physical distancing requirements and guidelines that remain in existence on federal, state, and local levels. This may require:

  • Reconfiguring internal work spaces, traffic patterns, schedules, and staffing levels. Set up job rotations so that each employee operates remotely one or two days a week to reduce the complement of on-site workers on any given day.
  • Setting a flexible schedule to regard the workday (to reduce the number of employees present on the same day) and shift some workers to a different workweek.

E. Screening & Monitoring

Employers should voluntarily screen, screen and regularly monitor employees prior to initially restarting work and during. This will require notifying employees that they are restricted from coming to work if they have symptoms of the illness. Temperature-taking is permitted but should assess the records kept confidential under ADA and any state or local laws pertaining to employee medical records. This includes not letting employees see their coworkers information on sign-in sheet records and take the temperatures in private locations.

F. Outbreak Identification Preparedness Actions

Following any outbreak of COVID-19 in the workplace, which is defined as three or more COVID-19 cases within a 14-day period at a single location or when a local health department identifies a place of employment as the location of a COVID-19 outbreak, the standards impose on numerous requirements:

  1. Immediately provide testing and investigate the outbreak. Implement any necessary corrective action.
  2. Appoint a workplace infection prevention coordinator to implement prevention procedures and manage COVID-19 related issues. Create methods for tracking suspected and confirmed cases and follow current guidelines from the CDPH and CDC on when a worker may return to work after a suspected or confirmed case.
  3. Identify contact information for the local health department where the establishment or workplace is located and notify the department immediately if there is a known or suspected outbreak. An outbreak may be defined differently by different local health departments.
  4. Instruct workers to stay at home and report to their coordinators and employers if they have symptoms, diagnosed with, or waiting results for COVID-19.

If there is a major outbreak of COVID-19, defined as 20 or more COVID-19 cases in an exposed workplace within a 30-day period, in addition to the requirements, employers must also:

  1. Increase COVID-19 testing at least twice a week to all exposed employees within the 30-day period and who remain at the workplace. Continue investigating the outbreak and implement necessary corrective actions including potential pause of operations until corrections are made.

Remote Working

  1. Create clear remote working policies that should incorporate the wage and hour considerations as well as other expectations of employees who are working remotely (e.g.) how often employees should communicate with their managers, and maintaining security and confidentiality of equipment and data. The best practice is to reimburse a reasonable portion of employees’ use of personal mobile phone, internet, and office supplies.
  2. Consider full time and part time employees working from home to sign remote work or teleworking agreements that incorporate telework or remote working policies. Continue to monitor employees as well as non-exempt employees to ensure accurate time records are maintained to avoid claims for unpaid time or missed meal and rest periods.

About Heather Bendinelli

Is your business ready to re-open? Do your employees know how to protect themselves and others from Covid-19? This website offers training for your employees to learn about proper PPE, hand washing, social distancing, and when to report to their employer if they have signs or symptoms of illness.