At this point, in-person workplaces must acknowledge that at least one employee contracting COVID-19 is almost inevitable, and if they haven’t already, begin making plans on how to not only mitigate spread, but adapt to the disruptions positive cases will inherently introduce into the workplace.
Christmas dinners have been eaten, and we’ve bid adieu to wrapping presents, decking halls, and possibly even thrown out a crispy and browning tree. However, Christmas wasn’t just about religious reverence and Santa Claus; Americans packed airports to be with families, to the chagrin of medical professionals everywhere. Covid cases rose dramatically after a similar rush for familial togetherness during Thanksgiving as experts warned of the dangers a third wave spike, and the weeks following Thanksgiving were two of the three deadliest on record in the US.
This is sobering news in and of itself but is made even more alarming by the fact that Christmas travel outpaced Thanksgiving and has led to further overwhelming hospitals and the inability to adequately provide the necessary and life-saving treatment and equipment patients require. While Hanukkah notably fell early this year, it isn’t a major holiday where families are regularly expected to travel cross-country to be with one another, as they might do for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Passover. Now at the end of the two-week coronavirus incubation period after Christmas, we’re seeing record-breaking highs. At the time this article was written, The COVID Tracking Project noted that, “the U.S. is still reporting more than 200,000 cases and 3,000 deaths per day. These are the highest levels of the pandemic.” This isn’t an outlier either; in addition, January has seen record-breaking death tolls multiple days in a row, and the state of Arizona alone has the highest number of new cases per capita in the world. However, looking beyond the holidays, the recent insurrection at the Capitol and the associated protests planned in all 50 states have the potential to cause even more widespread contagion in the weeks ahead—though the numbers won’t reflect transmission for several weeks yet, doctors are already warning that it could have been a superspreader event.
Employer now more than ever have to play double duty, both encouraging their employees to minimize risk, while also dealing with the inevitable reality that some will travel (or already have) and may become ill. This encompasses both employees working from home becoming incapacitated, and also possible spread within the office (not to mention the possibility that they may need to take on the additional responsibility of caring for a sick family member). We know that people with the novel coronavirus can test negative while still having contagious, asymptomatic COVID-19, meaning that even with daily testing, if an employee tests negative for nine days in a row after traveling but positive on day 10, it’s possible they were contagious and spreading the virus for all ten days, even if they felt well.
At this point, in-person workplaces must acknowledge that at least one employee contracting COVID-19 is almost inevitable, and if they haven’t already, begin making plans on how to not only mitigate spread, but adapt to the disruptions positive cases will inherently introduce into the workplace. Many organizations with employees reporting to the office are doing so because such jobs arguably cannot be done from home; however, considering the possibility of post-holiday spread, the alternative may be to greet the new year by completely shutting down in-person operations if (or, more likely, when) an employee working in-house tests positive. Considering these questions now rather than later can help employers minimize losses while also protecting and prioritizing employee’s health and safety. Otherwise, there’s a significant chance that businesses may be caught unaware and put both employee’s wellbeing and the organization’s business capabilities at a serious risk.
Employers are allowed to enquire after employee’s travel plans (though employees of course have the right to refuse to disclose such information) and should take local and state guidelines in regard to travel restrictions and self-quarantine orders into account when crafting guidelines, while also considering how such necessities will impact business functions. For example, if an employee is unable to work from home but nevertheless travels for the holidays, to a protest, or simply for fun, how will that be handled? Will employees be required to test negative before returning to work? Noting as we did above that one might still spread the virus while asymptomatically testing negative, how will such risks be handled? As always, releasing clear, specific guidelines and policies to employees as soon as possible can ensure safety guidelines are accurately understood and followed.
Some businesses, as undesirably as it may be, may want to seriously consider briefly shuttering in order to protect employee and community health as well as business longevity. After all, no one wants to be the business that gave their community COVID-19; even if everyone fully recovers, that’s the type of reputational damage that may never go away. Therefore, while it may not be possible to 100% eliminate the possibility of employees catching COVID-19, a realistic approach that works to both prevents spread and prepares to deal with a positive diagnosis rapidly and efficiently can help save lives and protect business interests.
These articles are prepared for general purposes and are not intended to provide advice or encourage specific behavior. Before taking any action, Advisors and Plan Sponsors should consult with their compliance, finance and legal teams.
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