These days, you can’t help turning on the news and getting updates, minute by minute, on the coronavirus (COVID-19). While it originated in China late last fall, it has quickly spread all over the world and has now arrived in the U.S. It’s changing how businesses operate and how we live our lives.
Here are a few facts about the virus:
- COVID-19 started as an animal virus in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where farmed and exotic animals are tied up or stacked in cages. Many such animals are killed on-site to ensure freshness. According to Dr. Jeff Kwong, an epidemiologist and scientist with ICES and Public Health Ontario, “This virus is closely related to known bat viruses. That’s why it’s believed to have originated from a bat.” It has since developed the ability to spread from human-to-human. Because it’s a new virus, humans have never been exposed to it before and no one is immune from getting it.
- It can be spread from person-to-person even before an individual feels ill or starts showing symptoms. Others don’t even become symptomatic, yet they can transmit the virus.
- There are multiple ways to transmit the coronavirus. Currently, the CDC acknowledges it being spread by close contact, respiratory droplets in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and by touching surfaces that an infected person has come in contact with. The virus has also been found in urine and feces.
- At greatest risk for this virus are those with a compromised immune system, including individuals with severe chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes; respiratory conditions; cardiovascular disease; heart, lung or kidney disease; and senior citizens. It’s more lethal than seasonal flu.
Yet for all we know about the coronavirus to date, there’s so much more that we don’t know, such as how many fatalities can we expect. According to the New York Post, in 2020, the coronavirus could kill 10 times more Americans than cancer or heart disease. Potentially, this could mean 6.99 million deaths this year, with the pandemic potentially spreading well into 2021. To further complicate things, a person can test negative numerous times, only to then test positive. According to researchers, there’s no logic or explanation for this.
Protecting Your Business and Employees
Once individuals test positive in an area, state and local governments have been imposing strong protocols that can protect their citizens, yet these can hurt your business. Examples are:
- Travel restrictions: If your employees need to travel locally, regionally, or to countries affected by the virus, this can pose a challenge. They may need to consider Skype or other remote means of participating in meetings. In addition, select cities, large and small, have had lockdowns imposed for the safety of their residents.
- If your employees exhibit any of the symptoms of COVID-19, doctors recommend they should stay home from work so as not to infect others. On average, this can add up to two weeks or more, making it difficult for a business to continue functioning. Yet working remotely will protect you and your employees, allowing your business to continue to function.
- If your employees commute to work using public transportation, in all likelihood, they’re in very close proximity to others, thus posing a higher risk for exposure/transmission of the virus. Then, there’s also the possibility that public transportation can be shut down for a designated period of time. Are your employees in a position to access alternate transportation that doesn’t put them at great risk? Do they have a backup plan?
- If your business serves the public, including restaurants, the hospitality industry, retail, and other forms of entertainment, if your local or state government requires lockdowns in your area, how will you cope and take care of your employees?
- Can you afford to undergo supply chain disruptions related to your business if lockdowns are put in place? How long can you afford to survive such disruptions?
Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Business
This is the time to pull out your disaster contingency plan, if you have one, and review, update, and implement it. Hopefully, your plan also includes solutions that address sick leave policies and supply chains.
There’s no guarantee that COVID-19 won’t hit your city or region. Be prepared.
- If any of your employees test positive for COVID-19, they should stay home. Does your sick leave policy address employees who lack leave or are unwilling to use it? According to the website www.officepulse.captivate.com, a study of 642 white-collar workers showed 70% of business professionals go into their office when they feel sick, because they feel stressed, overloaded with work, and fear falling behind.
- As of March 16, 2020, The Washington Post reports Congress has taken steps to cover employees according to the latest version of a bill to protect limits eligibility for 12 weeks of paid family leave for parents who care for children whose schools have closed. However, this legislation has a loophole that allows companies to get out of paying for two weeks of sick leave. Plus, small businesses under 50 employees and many health care providers can now be exempted from paying sick leave.
- As your business deals with possible temporary closings and/or potential absences due to the coronavirus, does your leave policy require adjustments? Will you offer sick leave to workers who normally don’t receive it? Do you offer paid or unpaid leave, as workers are less likely to take unpaid leave? Consider how you will handle employees who are put under quarantine, whether mandatory or voluntary.
- Are your employees set up to work remotely…from home? Your IT department will need to either set up this process or update it ASAP.
- Everyone is stressed. Communication is key when such a crisis occurs. Communicate what you expect from your employees during this challenging time and give them the opportunity to ask questions and express their concerns. Allay their fears by communicating with them often.
- Consider the following suggestions when it comes to communication:
- As mentioned earlier, review your company’s policies related to international and domestic business travel, if appropriate
- Specify what you expect of your workers who feel ill
- Clearly communicate any revisions to your absence policy or sick leave rules
- Communicate your company’s plans regarding continuing operations if a local outbreak of the coronavirus occurs
- Determine and convey to all of your employees who will work remotely and how they are expected to access your systems
- Designate who are your “essential” employees who need to come in and who can work remotely
Stress COVID-19 precautions
Review what your employees need to know to protect themselves from the coronavirus. For example, remind everyone that they should cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing, or tell them to cough into their elbow. Emphasize the importance of handwashing for a minimum of 20 seconds. And, if your employees feel ill, insist that they stay home so as not to infect their co-workers.
At this critical time, you can never over communicate with your employees. It’s better for them to hear the same consistent message over and over. Some may feel stressed about what’s being communicated on the news and are seriously concerned about their at-risk loved ones. Others may be focused on what actions the government is taking in terms of school closures and city lockdowns. Then, too, they may have financial concerns about how they can afford to be off work for weeks at a time—especially if they don’t receive a paycheck. The message may not be easy to convey; however, as long as your employees know you’re being honest with them and communicating what you know when you know it, they’re more likely to understand that we’re all in this together and that they’re not alone.