Getting Back to Work in a COVID World

As we all begin to return to work following the loosening of restrictions, it is important to take stock and prepare for the future. By now it should be clear to all of us that COVID will likely be with us for a while. Not only must employers prepare to conduct business in this new environment, it is also important to forecast potential legal challenges. To do so, businesses must take stock of practices and policies that have served us well and those that must be discarded or modified. Below I discuss the three most important actions you can take to protect your business and employees in a COVID world.

Evaluate your Policies in Light of the “New Normal”

As the ripple effect of COVID was felt in the economy and employers were forced to lay off all or most of their workforce, many businesses in Oregon were surprised to find out about a little-known rule with huge financial impact. OAR 839-001-0430 requires that when it is unclear that a furlough or layoff is permanent, after 35 days from the date of the furlough or layoff is considered permanent and wages become due. Many employer’s PTO policies stated that upon termination all PTO was to be paid out. Employers with such policies were thus confronted with the prospect of having to pay out PTO for many employees at the same time during a time of economic uncertainty or risk a BOLI complaint. If you haven’t already, now is the time to look at revising your policy so that it serves you and your business needs.

If you would like advice on this and other policy changes, please contact us. One of our experienced attorneys will be happy to assist in reevaluating your policies.

Set Clear Guidelines and Provide Notice

The past couple of months have demonstrated that people react differently to the same event. Not only has wearing a face mask become highly politicized, but tensions are even higher with the increased prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The best way to address differing sentiment and political views in the workplace and with customers is to set clear guidelines and expectations. Employers are conducting health screens as part of their return to work policies. Some employers are also required to conduct health screens of members of the public. Some individuals continue to doubt the danger and may take actions that put at risk the safety of others. For this reason, it is important that you set clear guidelines regarding your business’ policies in light of the pandemic. This includes policies relating to your employees as well as your customers. It also includes policies relating to health and safety issues as well as respectfulness. Your policies must make your expectations clear and also set out the consequences of failing to comply. By taking the time to carefully craft policies in light of our ‘new normal’ now, you can avoid potential liability later.

Apply your Policies Uniformly

Protect your business by applying your policies uniformly. We are unquestionably living in a time of heightened tension as a result of the uncertainty that COVID has brought but also due to increased racial tension. For this reason, it has become increasingly important to apply your policies uniformly. We all know that, whatever our personal beliefs or politics, it is illegal to treat employees or members of the public differently based on their protected class. However, sometimes it is easy to give preferential treatment to those that look like us or whom we believe share common values and beliefs. But, doing so could be a big mistake. Making exceptions or applying policies selectively not only undermines a basic sense of fairness but could also make you vulnerable to litigation.

We live in an increasingly complicated and regulated world, more so now than any one of us could have imagined at the beginning of the year. You are not alone. Let SBH Legal assist you to avoid litigation and meet legal challenges. Contact me at aortega@sbhlegal.com or 503-412-3105.