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How to Answer Common Questions from Employees Called Back to Work

employee with question about return to work coronavirus

As more companies reopen their doors and bring employees back, HR professionals across the country are hearing the same types of questions. As an employer, be sure you are prepared for the kinds of issues that will arise.

While Hawaii as a state has managed to flatten the curve and keep the spread of COVID-19 to a minimum, we’re not out of the woods yet.

Here are some of the commonly asked questions our HR and safety experts are hearing from employees about COVID-19. Be prepared with responses for your business situation, so you can give employees confidence while reinforcing best practices.

Do I have to come in? What if I am not comfortable going back in to work?

Many employers are reporting that their employees are fearful about returning to the workplace in the wake of COVID-19. It’s understandable given all the anxiety and misinformation and as employers, it’s important to be empathetic.

However, employers are within their rights to call employees back. If the employee has a legitimate concern, such as an ADA accommodation request or fact-based safety concern, be sure to address them with mindfulness and open dialogue.

“Addressing concerns with care, compassion, and flexibility where possible, while also balancing business and operational needs, is certainly not an easy task,” advises Director of HR Services Michele Kauinui.

“As employees may be hesitant to return to work for a variety of reasons, it’s important to understand each unique situation,” Kauinui continues. “The ever-changing needs of the current business environment require employers to think out of the box and consider options that may not have been part of the norm prior to COVID-19.”

How will you keep me safe?

Every worksite is unique in how it manages concerns around COVID-19, but no business is exempt from assessing and addressing risk.

“It is an employer’s responsibility to ensure the General Duty Clause of OSHA is met,” says Director of Risk and Safety, John Fielding. The clause requires that the place of employment is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

“Employers should do everything they can to determine best practices for employee safety,” added Fielding, who leads a team on the front lines of safety.

Be sure to communicate changes made to business operations, facilities, protocol, and policy. This includes updates to cleaning schedules and PPE policy, if applicable, as well as any information related to your reopening plan.

Post signage to encourage your employees to continue to do the things that experts agree work: mask up, practice good hand and respiratory hygiene, and maintain a safe social distance.

Does the company have the right to ask about my health history and take my temperature? What if I don’t want to comply with temperature checks?

The short answer is yes, it is legal for employers to require temperature checks and other health measures. Updated guidance from the EEOC explicitly gives permission to employers to check temperatures and ask health questions related to COVID-19.

Allowable questions include those about COVID-19 symptoms like cough, fever, sore throat, etc.; whether your employee has spent time with symptomatic individuals; if they have been tested for COVID-19; and what the test results were.

Another option is to have employees check their own temperature, self-report symptoms, and log the results. Either way, you as employer must maintain individual privacy of medical information.

Make sure your employees know that any information collected is confidential under the law and will not be shared with co-workers. Employers may not ask for other medical information, unrelated to COVID-19, unless job-related and consistent with business necessity.

“Front-line supervisors and managers must be trained on how to handle confidential medical information, especially during this time of heightened awareness to the safety and health of others in the work environment,” according to Director of HR Services Michele Kauinui.

“For example, while employers are allowed to ask about COVID-related symptoms during this pandemic, they may not inquire into other medical history information, unless job-related and consistent with business necessity.”

In addition, she cautions, despite co-workers or customers who may express concern about an individual’s absence, employers may not disclose to them about an employee’s medical leave, whether COVID-related or not.

Will everyone wear a mask? Do I have to wear one? Can my employer require me to wear a face mask or other PPE?

Whether masks will be worn at work may be determined by local law or company policy. If your workplace will be requiring employees to wear masks—which is allowable—employers will likely have to provide the masks and any training that may be required.

“If it’s employer policy or the City and County or State of Hawaii is requiring masks, then yes, employees have to wear them,” explains Fielding. “On the other hand, if it’s a recommendation and the employer decides not to require them, then the decision to wear a mask is up to the individual.”

In Hawaii, rules have been enacted requiring face masks for many activities including riding the city bus and visiting business establishments. These rules are expected to change as the threat level from COVID-19 decreases, so be sure you are informed of the latest requirements.

What happens if I get sick? Will I get paid for time off? What if someone in my family gets sick and I must care for him or her? What if I no longer have childcare?

Employers are working hard to meet the needs of employees juggling new and difficult challenges right now. It’s important to take the time to understand each employee’s situation and try to be flexible in making accommodation decisions.

If your company is covered under the Families First Coronavirus Recovery Act (FFCRA), you may be required to provide paid leave to employees who are sick or called upon to serve as caregivers for children or other relatives.

Covered employers are legally required to notify your employees of their rights under FFCRA by posting and/or distributing the FFCRA Fact Sheet for Employees.

“Communication is key during this very stressful time,” according to Director of Benefit Services, Lori Rego. “Be sure to talk to your employees about their situation when they indicate they are unable to work.  There are a variety of benefits that may be available to them and it’s important to administer those benefits accordingly.”

Can my employer send me home if they think I am sick?

“The answer is yes,” says Fielding. “If the employer—based upon objective observation for signs and symptoms of COVID— thinks the employee is sick, the employee may be sent home.”

Any employee exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 can be asked to leave the work site. Their leave may be paid or unpaid, depending on the particulars of the situation. Sending symptomatic people home is a basic way to help keep the workplace safe.

According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, “Employees who have symptoms when they arrive at work or become sick during the day should immediately be separated from other employees, customers, and visitors and sent home.” (Source)

What if a co-worker gets sick? How will I know? Does an employer have to notify staff if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19?

If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, employers are required to let other employees know—while maintaining the confidentiality of the individual. In addition, employers will need to close off areas used by the sick individual in order to deep clean the space.

“As always, honesty is the best policy,” says Risk and Safety Director John Fielding. “Communicate exactly what is happening; it is important. However, confidentiality of specific medical information is crucial.”

Have a question for one of our HR experts? To learn more about this issue or to schedule a free consultation on the advantages of human resources outsourcing, contact simplicityHR.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should first consult their attorney, accountant or adviser before acting upon any information in this article.

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