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Get Out In Front of Coronavirus Safety or Get Run Over

April 16, 2020

By Michael Burns, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

It is being reported that employees working under essential employee status are not only starting to walk off the job but are filing safety violation complaints with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) if they feel that their employers are not demonstrating enough concern over their safety and the risks they are taking while working during this pandemic. Incidents of workers walking off the job are being watched closely by the media, and reporting is not very sympathetic towards employers. In March 800 employee complaints were reported by MIOSHA about employers’ alleged COVID-19 response safety failures.

Take the Amazon activist who was fired for trying to organize workers to walk out of their New York warehouse based upon safety concerns. He did not make Amazon look good. And Amazon did not look very good defending itself by trying to argue he allegedly was fired for not following the rules that he was protesting as being too safety lenient. Amazon’s intentions were questionable after a memo was leaked to the media showing Amazon was trying to smear him. It was reported workers walked off the job locally at the Romulus “fulfillment” center as well.

Even the mighty U.S. Navy took a serious media hit when it fired the Captain of one if its aircraft carriers for ignoring the chain of command and requesting emergency help for his crew. The world saw his crew applauding the officer as he left the ship and the Navy tried to argue he did not follow the chain of command. Subsequently the Acting Navy Secretary resigned amid the fall-out. Regardless of the understood military importance of following chain of command rules, it still looked bad on the employer – the U.S. Navy.

Labornotes, a pro-union e-newsletter, lists the growing walkouts across the U.S. and Canada. They noted “Concerns about COVID-19 are building on long-simmering grievances.” 

Employers who remain open for business need to be ahead of the myriad of employment issues. ASE has been responding to questions about what employers can and cannot do pursuant to many new state and federal laws impacting Michigan’s places of employment.  Many employers that are currently closed are marshalling their resources to help employees get benefits that the state and federal governments as well as the employers themselves are providing. Information on how to access unemployment benefits, employer paid time off benefits, and of course if employees qualify, benefits directed from Emergency Family and Medical Leave and Emergency Paid Sick Leave payments from the employer.

These employers will now have to plan for restarting their businesses, safely.

As employers start thinking about re-opening, a recent news article reminds employers what to keep their eyes on.

“Legally OK, reputationally questionable – The tension between getting up and running as soon as possible versus taking chances with the health of employees is both a moral and a legal quandry. Employers have a relatively low legal risk, but a high reputational one, if they rush people back to the office,” said Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney at law firm Duane Morris who specializes in human resources and minimizing companies’ legal and business risks. (CNBC Business News)

Employers can take the initiative on safety and as one ASE member asked, “Can I make it mandatory that employees use masks or other face coverings, use gloves, make use of sanitary wipes, as well as help clean the workplace? Should I post signs requiring this and other actions that demonstrate the employer cares about their employees in a demonstrable way?” Employers will also be taking employees’ temperatures and monitoring their health before they re-enter the workplace. This raises confidentiality concerns.

Employers that fall behind on keeping safety out in front for all employees risks further spreading the virus and losing employees to illness and worse. But they also risk a public shaming of the entire organization in the media.

For employers that fall under critical infrastructure and whose employees are deemed essential, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) currently recommends the following:

  • The employer may pre-screen employees by taking their temperature and assessing symptoms prior to letting them enter to work.

  • Wear a mask. Employers are not advised to tell employees NOT to wear a mask.

  • Practice social distancing.

  • Disinfect and clean workspaces.

Additionally,

  • Do not share headsets or other objects that are near the mouth or nose.

  • Increase the frequency of cleaning on commonly touched surfaces.

  • Employers should work with facility maintenance to increase air exchanges in rooms.

  • During breaks employees should physically distance themselves during breaks. Stagger breaks and ensure employees do not congregate in the break room and do not share food or utensils.

Best Practices for Employers

  • Communicate with Employees – Use all prongs of communication available. Use credible sources such as the CDC website and state health agency sources.

  • Implement Flexible and Remote Working Arrangements – This has come to pass by necessity at this time but experts are predicting until a vaccine is brought to market the virus will come and go in waves necessitating future remote working scenarios. Develop pay practices to retain and reward employees as well as ensure wage and hour compliance for non-exempt employees.

  • Review and update leave policies – Stringent employee protections are being implemented by state and federal laws. What will be your organization’s policy and practice after employee’s are allowed to return? Many employees will have exhausted their paid and unpaid time off for the year. What now?

  • Senior leadership needs to lead by example – This may mean masking up wherever appropriate. They must also be focused on developing and maintaining employer-employee trust.

  • Maintain awareness of changing government requirements and directives – They are coming out daily now. ASE can help. Go to ASE’s website at https://www.aseonline.org/Insights-Analytics/Coronavirus-Resources.

OSHA has published a poster outlining workplace safety action for employers to place in their workplaces. Access it here.

In addition to the above, employers that have shut down or gone to total remote work might hopefully be opening up again a few weeks. ASE will be reporting on employer re-start actions and helping with the “new” workplace as its members get back to work. Please keep an eye out for new ASE resources, programs, and roundtables focusing on employment and the re-opening of businesses.

Additional ASE Resources
ASE COVID-19 Resources –  For more information on Coronavirus and its impact on employers, visit ASE’s Coronavirus resource page and FAQs.

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