Now that vaccines are more readily available and more is known about the virus, businesses are looking to bring workers back to the office. But will businesses be liable if their employees become sick? And how will business owners know it's a good time to reopen their offices and bring back employees?
Wht guidelines can help determine when it's safe to go back?
As you prepare your office for reopening, there are a few steps you should take in order to be properly prepared. After making sure that you are within local legal rights to reopen, construct a reopening plan tailored to your specific business.
Antti Alatalo, CEO of Smart Watches 4 U, an online smart watch review site, says that his small business has already gone back to the office. "During quarantine, I created a checklist that I promised myself I would follow to help me decide if it was safe and timely to go back to the office and ask my team to join me," he said. Having only 13 employees made this more manageable than a larger office, and one of Alatalo's top priorities was having the entire workspace disinfected.
Daivat Dholakia, Director of Operations for Force by Mojio, an online Fleet Management system, suggests familiarizing yourself with both the CDC and OSHA's COVID response guidelines before reopening, and crafting the office policies using the existing suggestions.
Dholakia says, "Consider a hybrid model where people rotate between working in the office and remotely. Personally, I would recommend being as flexible as possible with employees who want to continue working remotely for the time being. COVID-19 cases are still widespread."
Can I mandate a return to the office?
This may be dependent on state laws, but generally speaking, yes, a small business owner may require a return to the physical office space as a condition of employment.
According to Jay Kelley, Managing Partner of Elk & Elk Co. Ltd, a personal injury law firm with offices across the United States, a limited number of employees would be within their rights to continue working remotely. "Only those employees who qualify for this specific accommodation under the FMLA or the expanded COVID FFCRA." Kelley recommends strongly encouraging employees to be vaccinated but also cautions against vaccine mandates unless absolutely necessary. "Mandating a vaccine is a strong step and should only be taken in the interest of safety. The reasons and policy should be transparent and allow for health and religious accommodations and so that employees understand the necessity," Kelley says.
While you may technically be within your rights to force employees to return to the office, Rex Freiberger, CEO of Gadget Review, suggests that such a hard line may not be worth it in the long run. He says, "If you can ensure the safety of your employees via majority immunity from the virus and CDC-recommended precautions, then in theory it should be safe to ask people to come back to the office. But if they don't feel like it's safe, they're not going to be as productive and, more importantly, you're going to be abusing their trust for little to no benefit."
Can I be liable for work-incurred COVID infections?
Another significant consideration for small business owners is what liability exists in the case of any employee becoming infected with COVID-19 during work-related activities.
Andrew Lacy, an employment lawyer and the owner of the Lacy Employment Law Firm in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says that patience and compliance are the keys to avoiding any legal trouble. "If companies reopen too soon, they may face liabilities under workplace safety laws (OSHA) and also open themselves up to whistleblower lawsuits," Lacy says.
Christopher Liew, CFA, creator of Wealth Awesome, a popular Canadian finance guide, suggests an additional, proactive step. Liew says, "For legal liabilities, have a lawyer draft up an agreement with your employees that gives their consent to return to work given that you as the employer provide a safe work environment, and have them sign it."
Small business owners and employees alike will undoubtedly have mixed emotions about returning to the office, but with some preparation and continued communication, opening safely while remaining productive as well as healthy is absolutely possible.