The current coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) has caused concern for business owners in the Triangle and around the world. It is never too early for employers to consider how the outbreak will affect your employees, your output, and your bottom line. Dysart Willis Houchin & Hubbard represents employers across North Carolina and is prepared to help businesses prepare and handle an array of employment issues that you may encounter.
This is the third in a series of articles in which our attorneys address questions for small businesses in North Carolina. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released guidance tailored to businesses, providing recommendations and best practices for protecting your workforce. Read more about this guidance in our first blog post. Our second post confronted what small businesses can do to prepare for employment-related issues arising out of Coronavirus.
This third post lets small businesses know what they can do right now to get prepared, work through the outbreak, and stay compliant with government and health mandates related to COVID-19.
What Companies Can Do Now
- Stay Up-to-Date with Official Health Guidance.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the World Health Organization (WHO) all have dedicated websites with information about the novel coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, you can consult the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ website for state-specific Coronavirus response information. Consult with an attorney to ensure that you understand relevant federal and state leave and termination laws.
- Stay Up-to-Date with Relief and Financing Options
Financial institutions recognize the immediate economic impact this pandemic has created for small businesses. If you contact your bank they should be able to identify loan options that may be able to supply capital to your businesses at favorable rates. Additionally, the US Small Business Administration is making disaster loan packages available for qualifying businesses. Finally, while not yet passed, stimulus packages that may provide relief to employers are being discussed at both the state and federal level. Working with an attorney can help you strategically identify which options may be right for your company in both the short and long term.
- Review Your Product or Service Risks.
Every workplace is different, and regardless of whether you produce products, provide services, or both, there are risks specific to your industry or your workplace. Consult with legal counsel to review your specific risks and any obligations you may have to disclose these risks or review them with your contractors, employees, clients, customers, and/or business associates.
- Provide Relevant Safety Information to Your Workforce.
Whether you simply need to regularly clean and disinfect surfaces in your workplace, or you need to discuss potential risks your products or services pose to your workforce related to the coronavirus or potential exposure, be sure to communicate this safety information to your employees. While doing so, be mindful to not disclose protected medical information about employees or others.
- Revisit Contracts and Internal Policies with an Experienced Attorney.
Well-drafted contracts provide clear guidance regarding the parties’ rights and obligations. Your business’s contracts with outside vendors, outside suppliers, and business associates may include minimum volume requirements or force majeure clauses that will be affected by the fluctuations of supply and demand during the coronavirus outbreak. Contracts with customers, clients, independent contractors, and employees may also be affected.
- Address Risks to Your Existing Employees.
Your business’ internal policies should be reviewed, updated, and discussed with employees in light of the pandemic so that employees are clear on business policies, its contingent plans during the outbreak, and any changes in its relations to its customers or vendors. Develop hygiene policies aimed at keeping the workplace clean and reducing the spread of communicable disease. Be sure to assess risks specific to your industry, your workplace, or your workforce and update and discuss these policies and commitments regularly as the outbreak continues. Policies should be consistent with public health recommendations and existing laws, so consult an attorney for guidance. Important steps you can take now include:
- Encourage employees to stay work or work from home if they are sick;
- Offer flexible work arrangements;
- Send symptomatic workers home;
- Implement business travel restrictions;
- Do not forget to address sick family members’ needs;
- Maintain privacy;
- Develop a business continuity plan;
- Develop contingency plans in the event of future changes;
- Designate a point of contact for employees with questions or concerns.
- Be Flexible.
Whether it is committing your workforce to telecommuting-only, cutting workplace hours, or amending the business model entirely, be flexible if and whenever possible. Laws and health guidance are changing hourly, and it is important to put policies and technology to work to ensure your business is as prepared as possible for these changes.
- Monitor the Situation.
Stay in touch with your lawyer and your workforce. Experienced attorneys can keep you updated about forthcoming legal guidance to keep you ahead of the changes. Make sure you are communicating effectively with your staff to keep them on track with your company goals and requirements.
If you have questions as an employer about appropriate workplace response to the coronavirus infections, Dysart Willis Houchin & Hubbard is here to help. Our attorneys are available over the phone at 919-747-8380 or through video conferencing to discuss any legal problems your company is facing and identify potential solutions.