Managing an outbreak: HR Q&A

Christi Sanders

As a human resource management professional, I receive calls and emails every day from colleagues around the country. The coronavirus outbreak has forced businesses to juggle everything from orders to close, to caring for employees at risk of becoming sick to maintaining relationships with customers to avoiding bankruptcy.

I’ve compiled a few frequently asked questions — and my answers — to hopefully benefit others.

Q: Which businesses are considered “essential” and which are not?

A: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order on March 25 outlining 13 critical business categories allowed to remain open under the stay in place order. These include health care operations, critical infrastructure, critical manufacturing, critical retail, critical services, news media, financial institutions and more. Review the list online at https://health.mesacounty.us/covid19/ and click on the FAQ Related to Stay-at-Home Order.

Q: I’m healthy now, but at risk for contracting the coronavirus because of underlying health conditions and age. I can work from home, but my boss says I have to come to work anyway because our organization provides essential services. Do I?

A: This is a tricky question for employers and employees. Employers should keep in mind, though,  that if employees are in a high-risk category and ask for accommodations to work from home, employers should grant them if at all possible. Individuals who have underlying health issues could be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Failure to provide reasonable accommodations during a pandemic could become a legal issue. Keep in mind a business can’t use discriminatory reasons to determine who works from home and who does not. Those decisions should be made based on an employee’s classification and what kind of work they do. The executive order strongly encourages everyone who possibly can to work from home.

Q: How can I keep paying employees when my non-essential business is closed and I can’t earn income?

A: Some help is on the way in terms of payroll tax credits, grants and loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Visit https://www.sba.gov/page/coronavirus-covid-19-small-business-guidance-loan-resources#section-header-0 for more information. Additionally, you can lay off your employees during a time of temporary closure, enabling them to file for unemployment benefits. If you’ve purchased any type of business interruption insurance, now is the time to file a claim.

Q: My employees work from home, but they don’t seem to be very productive. How can I ensure they work sufficient hours and take care of business?

A: My response to this question is twofold: First, breathe. Everyone is under extreme pressure right now. Children are out of school, and parents have found themselves cast in the roles of teachers on top of trying to work from home. Finances are an issue for many employees. Fear and anxiety about the pandemic has everyone feeling a bit cranky. Second, part of this experience is learning it’s OK to let people work odd schedules and hours. If your employee is scheduling conference calls at 7 a.m., that might be the only time they can be assured the kids will be quiet enough. Employees with school-age children try to get work done for your organization, but also could have three kids who have multiple required video sessions throughout the day. Managing resources and refereeing the inevitable conflicts that arise is challenging. Remain flexible and let people figure out their own schedules as much as possible. No one wants to lose a job right now, so believe your employees are doing the best they can to accommodate all the new demands in their lives.

Here are two more thoughts for business owners and managers to consider:

You’re not alone. Resources are available to help you manage your businesses, but you must be proactive to find and use them.

Thank you for doing your part to slow down the spread of this pandemic. I notice those organizations that disregard the orders and those that embrace them and still find new ways to serve customers. Guess who will get my business when this is over?