The aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were the first time in recent U.S. history that workplaces were forced to quickly adapt to a new reality and ground rules for keeping employees safe from an outside threat. Now, as organizations begin to consider how they will transition their workers back into the workplace, leaders will need to thoughtfully structure how they will keep their employees safe against the invisible viral enemy represented by COVID-19, say risk-mitigation experts with Holmes Murphy. 

Waukee-based insurance broker Holmes Murphy hosted a live webinar on Thursday with tips and best practices for employers to consider when developing their return-to-work plan.  

The battle against COVID-19 is “eerily similar” to the immediate post-9/11 planning that every U.S. organization engaged in, noted Chris Boyd, a Holmes Murphy senior vice president. “Really, our goal today is to support your preparation for the attack [COVID-19 has] waged on your company’s health security,” Boyd said. 

Workplaces may look and operate quite differently when workers begin returning from working remotely from their homes in order for employees to be safe. Employers may want to rethink whether they even want the risk of a shared break room right now, for instance, and whether some employees may want to continue working remotely. Does carpooling make sense for workers trying to social distance? Should there be an elevator operator pushing the buttons for workers in high-rise office buildings? 

From a risk-management perspective — as well as being the right thing to do — employers are going to want to take every precaution to ensure that they’re not exposing their workers to unnecessary risks when they return to work, the experts said. Here are some of the highlights from the one-hour panel discussion. 

Holmes Murphy considers four categories of risk for assessing employees returning to work: 
– Low risk – not exposing high-risk close contacts.
– Low risk – exposing high-risk close contacts.
– High risk – employees over 65, with chronic diseases or immuno-compromised.
– Employees with COVID-19 infection or exposure.

“You don’t want to discriminate against people, but we want to make sure that we give people the option [of whether to come back],” said Dr. Scott Conard, chief medical officer with Holmes Murphy. “There is a lot of anxiety about who comes back to work, and so we want to make sure we give people the option to come back to work based upon their risk,” he said. 

The foundation of any organization’s return-to-work plan won’t be testing — it will be social distancing, Conard said. “It’s going to be making sure that you have social distancing in place — that you’ve thought it through and figured it out, that there is very aggressive personal hygiene being encouraged, and that personal protective equipment, to the degree that it’s appropriate and available, is being used,” he said. One of the most important considerations is that surfaces in shared or common areas such as break rooms should be thoroughly cleaned every two hours during the workday. 

Although every employer would like the quick answer of a testing solution, that piece of a potential strategy is still quickly evolving, the experts said. “We think testing needs to be a piece, but not the foundation,” said Leia Spoor, a senior clinical consultant with Holmes Murphy.  

Hybrid schedules, with some workers opting to remain working from home, could be a good alternative for many workplaces, said Josh Jacobsen, a senior loss control consultant with Holmes Murphy. “You may find that people are productive outside of the workplace and that keeping them out of the workplace is the best way to reduce risk,” he said. 

Organizations should also take precautions before reoccupying a vacated building, among them flushing out water systems, replacing air filters and completely disinfecting surfaces. Companies may also want to consider hiring a third-party professional cleaner to handle the work. 

Ed Oleksiak, a Holmes Murphy senior vice president, addressed some of the things that employers can and cannot do relative to employee health information. “You can certainly ask your employees as they’re coming to work whether they’ve experienced any of these symptoms or whether they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID,” he said. “And in fact if they have, or do, then you’re permitted to send them home. And then you have to look at your leave policies to see if they’ll be entitled to any pay or those types of things. And as always, keep an eye on the CDC and other federal, state and local guidance in this space.” 

However, Oleksiak cautioned that health data from the employee health plan can only be used in the aggregate, and can’t be used to determine who has chronic health conditions in order to consider when to have them return to work. 

“We can use it to determine how much of our workforce may have a chronic condition that may pull themselves out of coming back to work,” he said. “You can use it to set targets about the pace at which you can bring people back to work, based on how many folks you think might not come back either because of their age, or because of their health conditions.” 

For workers who have a fear of returning to work and telework is not possible, employers should treat that situation as they would for a normal request for leave, Oleksiak said. “You have the right to ask them if they have a medical reason, just like you would in a [Family Medical Leave Act] or disability situation: ‘Why can’t you come back to work?’” 

As part of their longer-term strategies, companies must address their employees’ overall health to reduce the incidence of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, Spoor said. Over 70% of people who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 had at least one underlying chronic health condition, she noted. “The real enemy is disease,” she said. “Not only do you have to figure out what to do about COVID-19, you have to figure out how to help people in your organization with underlying health conditions.”

To receive a link to the recording of the full panel discussion, click here.

Other resources: 

Labor Department seeks input on reopening workplaces
The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday launched a national online dialogue on “Opening America’s Workplaces Again,” to solicit ideas from the public on how best to help employers and workers reopen America’s workplaces safely. The dialogue will run through May 7 and will include a one-hour Twitter chat today at 1 p.m. CDT. The public – including employers, workers, local authorities and advocacy groups – is invited to share ideas on six topics: reopening businesses; commuting safely; working safely; accommodating members of vulnerable populations; supporting America’s families; and reducing regulatory burdens. Registration information can be found here. 

Collaborative report proposes road map for school reopenings 
The American Federation of Teachers on Thursday released a detailed road map to safely and responsibly reopen school buildings and other critical institutions. The 20-page, science-based “Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities” was developed through a collaboration of public health professionals, union leaders and front-line workers to prepare for what happens next in the period between flattening the curve and truly eradicating the virus, the association said.

What’s the labor market outlook for Iowa? 
The Business Record on Thursday released a video replay of the Coping w/COVID: Labor Market Outlook webinar.