Guidance for Businesses Concerning the COVID-19 Virus 

Friday, March 20, 2020 3:14:13 PM

During this COVID-19 pandemic, the business environment for employers is rapidly changing from day to day. Below are some suggestions for businesses and employers during this crisis:

CDC Website. Companies should regularly monitor the CDC web page at www.cdc.gov.  This website provides information about COVID-19, how it spreads and its symptoms, as well as practices to minimize exposure to the virus. It also provides other guidance that may be helpful to you or your business. The more that you know, the more that you can help protect your employees.

Create a Business Continuity Plan. After 9/11, many businesses developed plans in the event of another terrorist attack or the other catastrophe. With this pandemic, companies should develop a business continuity plan. The CDC website provides a section on “Important Considerations for Creating an Infectious Disease Response Plan”. Business should review these considerations.

Maintain Flexibility. The future business environment is uncertain and rapidly changing. Companies that maintain flexibility will have the best ability to react to circumstances as they develop. Accordingly, if you can, don’t commit the company to any long term obligations. You may have every intention of fulfilling these obligations, but time in this business climate is key.

Cash is Key. Retaining cash is one way to maintain this flexibility. This pandemic has already created a cash flow problem for many companies and the longer it continues, the more likely that cash will be integral to your business. Monitor your cash flow and preserve where you can.

Employment Matters. As businesses feel the financial strain of this crisis, there will be a variety of human resource issues that will need to be addressed. Will the company have to lay-off employees? What happens if an employee is at work with symptoms of the virus? If an employee becomes infected with the virus, what steps do you take in the workplace? Employers need to be careful in implementing these policies and assure that their actions do no single out employees based on a protected class.

Limit Business Travel. At the onset of this virus, many employers restricted business travel to highly infected areas. Now that the virus is widespread, this is getting harder to determine. The CDC website has good information about the risk levels and recommendations of travel to certain locations. Further, many employers are now restricting all travel. While this allows a uniform approach by the company, it may not be practicable with certain suppliers or customers.

Restrict or Limit Work Meetings. It should be a foregone conclusion that any large work events should be cancelled. However, how should employers deal with inside office meetings or smaller out of office meetings? In just one week, we have become versed in what is social distancing. However, companies need to establish a policy and enforce it.

Work from Home. Can an employee perform their job from home? If so, employers should consider allowing employees to do so. If an employee requests to work from home, employers should be prepared to respond to these requests in a consistent manner and be clear that any work from home is temporary and does not set a future precedent. With any work from home, employers will need to coordinate with IT personnel to make sure it can be done effectively and securely.

Insurance. You should be reviewing your general commercial liability insurance and business interruption insurance policies with your insurance agent for any potential insured claims. Many insurance companies have indicated that they are denying coverage for claims arising from the coronavirus outbreak. However, depending on your policy language, there may be coverage for various occurrences, including employment claims, customer claims, supply chain disruptions and civil authority orders. Further, you should review any disability insurance policies and see if they would apply to physical or mental problems arising out of this pandemic. Stark & Knoll has a team of insurance experts who can review any policy for potential claims.

Contract Issues. Companies should collect their written contracts and review their provisions. Some contracts contain specific provisions that will need to be addressed during this disruption. Further, some contracts contain a Force Majeure clause, which may excuse performance under a contract for a period of time. Your failure to know what is in your contracts may materially affect your business even after this crisis is over.

Business Closure. Restaurants and bars in Ohio have been shut down for on-premises patrons. Additional businesses are closing by the day. You should encourage employees to conduct meetings by videoconference or telephone when possible. Employers may also consider limiting visitors to their worksites.

Health and Safety. If you have not already done so, send an email communication to employees referencing the CDC website and reminding them of safe hygiene. The CDC is recommending that employers place posters in the entrance to the workplace and other areas where hygiene is most important. Further, you should routinely clean frequently touched or used areas. Disposable cleaning wipes should be readily available for use and immediately discarded in the trash after use.

Instruct Sick or Potentially Exposed Employees to Stay Home. Employees who feel sick or have a fever or symptoms of respiratory illness, such as shortness of breath, cough or sore throat, and who have potentially been exposed to the virus (ie. travel to a high risk area or an in-home family member has the virus) should be instructed to stay home. Further, you need to review your employee handbook and disability and leave laws.

What if an Employee is Diagnosed with the Virus? If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the employer should respond promptly to protect other employees from exposure, while maintaining the privacy of that individual. The CDC is currently recommending employers inform fellow employees of the possible exposure. However, employers should refrain from disclosing the identity of the affected employee based on health privacy laws. Employees should also notify relevant public authorities and take steps to decontaminate the workplace.

If you need help with any of the issues addressed in this article, please contact your Stark & Knoll attorney, who is prepared to help you.

By: Michael E. George, Esq., mgeorge@stark-knoll.com; 330-572-1304
Date: March 20, 2020

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