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Returning to work after COVID-19

While many states are currently lifting portions of their stay-at-home orders, or removing restrictions entirely, it’s important that we are preparing for the return of remote employees to the office setting.  There are several things your company should consider for the safety of your employees and patients, as well as protecting the company itself, to help prepare for that eventuality.  Remember that although your state mandate may have been lifted, the company is still responsible for keeping employees and other individuals in your locations safe.  Before you start developing a return-to-work plan, make sure you:

  1. Take stock of your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  While it would potentially ease the workload to allow employees back into your locations, it’s imperative that any employee who potentially could have contact with an infected individual is supplied with proper PPE.
  2. Read your any government mandates (including local regulations, as well as state, where applicable) to confirm what is required at this time.  This may include social distance as well as things like mask requirements, depending on your area.

Once you have evaluated these factors, you can start thinking about a plan for bringing employees back into the office.

  1. Think about ways your company can continue to ensure social distancing, when possible.  Even if it is not required by your government, the safety of your employees and other individuals coming into your facilities is still the company’s responsibility.  Remember that relaxation of the government regulations may mean that your employees, patients, or other professionals entering your building may be out and about more, increasing their risk of exposure.
    • This may mean only bringing a portion of your employees back in at first, or rotating shifts or hours so they are not in the building at the same time.
    • Place smaller capacity limits on meeting rooms.
  2. DO NOT call more employees back in than you are able to provide with PPE, if needed.  For employees who do not have direct patient contact, consider providing them with a cloth mask to be worn in the office.  For employees wearing masks for significant time periods, provide them with some form of “ear-savers” to avoid pressure injuries from the mask straps.  If you provide oxygen, you may be able to utilize cannula wraps you have on hand for this purpose.
  3. Make sure that employees are properly educated on and utilizing PPE appropriately.  It is not uncommon for PPE to provide a false sense of security. But it’s important for everyone to remember that they are potentially passing the virus to anything they interact with while still wearing the same equipment, like gloves.  Additionally, cloth and paper masks are designed to protect others from the wearer’s germs, not the other way around.  While they may help improve the chances of avoiding contracting the virus slightly, they will not protect wearers completely so social distancing is still necessary.  This training should also include how to remove the PPE and the occasions in which they should be using (or changing) the equipment.
    • The CDC recommends that this training material should be available in the appropriate language and literacy level for all workers so that they can go back and reference it, as needed.
    • According to OSHA and CDC guidelines, workers who will potentially be within 6 feet of patients who are known to be, or are suspected of being, ill with COVID-19, or those performing aerosol-generating procedures (like working on PAP devices) need to use NIOSH-approved, N95 filtering facepiece respirators or better.  Other types of acceptable respirators include R/P95, N/R/P99, or N/R/P100 filtering facepiece respirator, an air-purifying elastomeric (half-face or full-face) respirator with appropriate filters or cartridges, powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) with high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filter, or supplied air respirator (SAR).
    • If you’re not sure which types of respirator masks your employees need, the CDC refers to the NIOSH Respirator Selection Logic available here, or you can use the OSHA Respiratory eTools page, here.
  4. You could also require daily temperature checks for employees returning to the office.  This could be administered at the door (if thermometer with disposable covers is available), or self-reported.  If you are going to require self-reporting, you may need to provide employees with thermometers if they do not already have one in the home.
  5. Consider adding little perks for employees who are required to return to the office.  Remember that onsite employees are putting themselves at risk of exposure to support the company.  Some companies have reported throwing a “Welcome Back” pizza party, other have relaxed their dress code so onsite employees can be more comfortable during this stressful time, really just a small touch to let them know they are appreciated. 
  6. New information about COVID-19 is still coming out on an almost daily basis.  Appoint a chief COVID officer who is responsible for monitoring new information and ensuring that all public health and safety guidelines are being implemented and followed.  To protect your company, you may also choose to require that employees sign and acknowledge policy updates.
  7. Consider providing hand sanitizer and hand lotion for each employee or workstation.
  8. Evaluate your existing cleaning process and determine whether this is still sufficient or whether it may need to be improved on.  If you’re not sure, refer to the CDC’s guide on disinfecting a workplace.
  9. Consider making allowances for employees who are at higher risk of complications (e.g. older employees or those with chronic underlying medical conditions) or those with young children at home who may not have their usual caregivers.  The CDC also recommends allowing flexibility for employees with sick family members in the home.
  10. You should expect a higher rate of absenteeism since employees will likely be more attuned to any potential illness and should be strongly encouraged to stay home, if possibly ill.  Make sure that you have sufficient cross training that this will not affect your business.
  11. Pay extra attention to the frequently touched areas of your building or equipment.  You may even choose to place a box of gloves or paper towels next to these areas for employees and others to use if they need to touch them.  This should include things like door handles, railing on stairs (at each level), and elevator buttons.  In this case, you will also need to provide a no-touch receptacle for the disposal of these where provided.
  12. Discourage employees from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment (pens, notepads, etc.), when possible.  If your office or showroom is set up in a way that employees would typically share equipment, as needed, consider assigning a specific worker to each station instead of rotating in and out as they usually would, just make sure you factor this in and adjust commissions if appropriate. If that doesn’t work, make absolutely certain that disinfecting wipes or sprays are available to clean the equipment between users.
  13. Make sure that you have re-assessed your current sick day policy.  Adjustments may need to be made for the current environment.  For example, if you typically require that employees get a sick note, this may put them at higher risk than it is worth for the time being.  The CDC has recommended lifting this type of policy to avoid potential exposure and adding onto an already overtaxed healthcare system. 
  14. Make sure that your employees are aware of the company’s sick leave policy and what to do if they are experiencing symptoms so they don’t come in when they shouldn’t. You may also want to remind employees of what your company’s insurance policy covers and whether anything has changed in the coverage due to COVID-19.  For example, many payers will now allow billing for telehealth visits.  If the insurance you provide is one of them, letting your employees know may help them avoid having to go into their doctor’s office and potentially risking infection.
  15. Consider adding glass or plastic barriers between your employees and the public they may be serving, where appropriate and possible.

-by Jillian Miller