As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country, employers are going to great lengths to minimize the disruption to their businesses. At the same time, they’re scrambling to protect their biggest asset — their employees. It’s a tricky balancing act, but with the following information, you can better mitigate the fallout for you, your business, and your employees.
1) Keep up with federal relief options
By now, you’re undoubtedly accustomed to a steady stream of updates on the coronavirus pandemic. New developments are happening on a daily — if not hourly — basis, as is the country’s response to the outbreak.
On March 27, President Trump signed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act into law. The CARES Act aims to alleviate the economic impact of the pandemic for businesses and the American people through provisions including:
- Forgivable and affordable loan options through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the expanded Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. Unfortunately funds are no longer available for these programs, but there's more money on the way. You can learn more about these loans (and other relief options) here.
- A tax credit for retaining employees that's worth up to 50% of wages paid during the crisis. Credits are available to businesses that have been forced to suspend operations or that have seen gross receipts fall by 50% from the previous year. For more information, review this IRS notice and this FAQ page.
- Payroll tax deferrals that allow any employer (regardless of size) to defer payment of their share of Social Security taxes. This also allows self-employed individuals to defer certain self-employment taxes. These IRS FAQs provide more information.
- Other business provisions, such as relaxed filing deadlines, tax-free employer payments of employee student loans, executive compensation limits, and more.
2) If you’re a small business, look deeper
Many small businesses are being hit particularly hard — especially those that weren't approved for a PPP loan or EIDL. If you’re one of them, don’t weather the storm alone. Whether you’re looking for guidance, financial assistance or alternative relief options, take advantage of available support as you navigate this challenging situation. Need a good place to start? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has compiled resources and has a grant available to help small businesses as they figure out how to maintain their business’s health during this trying time. If you’re located in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) also created a program to provide grants to small businesses suffering losses due to the coronavirus.
3) Support employees impacted by sickness through encouragement and FFCRA
Further reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission in your workplace by actively encouraging sick employees to stay home. Employees with symptoms such as a fever, cough, or shortness of breath should notify their supervisor and follow CDC-recommended steps. Until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met, employees should not return to work. If employees have a family member infected with COVID-19, they should also notify their supervisor and follow CDC guidelines.
To address the sick-time implications of COVID-19, the federal government enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) on March 18, 2020. The FFCRA applies to private employers with fewer than 500 employees and public employers such as federal/state governments, political subdivisions, and schools. The Act has two main components, plus an option for employers to receive payroll tax credits for paid leave granted under the FFCRA. There's a lot to understand, so head over to this article to get all the details.
4) Monitor national updates from reputable sources
Keeping up with significant and ever-changing updates like these can feel like a full-time job, but it’s a must. Stay up-to-date and informed — and avoid misinformation — by relying on reputable resources like:
- Guidance and updates coming out of the White House.
- CDC guidance to help employers plan and respond.
- U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) resources for employers and workers.
- IRS webpage with information on topics such as tax relief.
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) information on complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and directives regarding worker COVID-19 exposure, workplace preparedness and prevention.
- EEOC’s guidance on the Rehabilitation Act, and how its anti-discrimination principles apply to COVID-19.
- American Payroll Association (APA) webpage of curated resources for businesses.
- SHRM’s webpage dedicated to coronavirus topics concerning businesses and HR.
5) Pay attention to state-specific guidance
As you monitor the global pandemic, keep an eye on what’s happening close to home, as that will have critical implications for your business. Whether you’re worried about compliance, or you’re looking for financial support, stay on top of state-specific resources for guidance. At this point, most state government websites have sections and webpages dedicated to COVID-19. Refer to those for a repository of information ranging from current data on coronavirus cases in your state to the latest news on community and business requirements.
For employers located in Wisconsin, you can also refer to these websites for coronavirus-related information:
- Wisconsin’s order that extended safer-at-home until May 26, 2020.
- Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) COVID-19 business resources.
- Department of Workforce Development’s (DWD) information on COVID-19 unemployment benefits.
- Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) COVID-19 resources.
For employers located in Illinois, these sites contain helpful information:
- Illinois’s order that extends stay-at-home until April 30, 2020.
- Illinois Department of Employment Security’s (IDES) contact information on unemployment benefits.
- Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) resources for small businesses in Illinois.
- DCEO’s webpage for small business grants and loan assistance.
6) Safeguard with paperless payroll and reports
As COVID-19 takes its toll on America’s economy, many of your employees may feel overwhelmed with financial stress. With the coronavirus disrupting many businesses and services, employees want to know they’ll still get paid on time. To guarantee this, offer, encourage, and (if possible) require employees to sign up for a paperless pay option, such as direct deposit or paycards.
With paperless options, payments are automated, so your employees don’t have to rely on banks and businesses to print, process, deliver, deposit and pick up their paychecks. Considering COVID-19’s substantial impact on businesses, decreasing the number of touchpoints required to pay employees is more important than ever. Furthermore, it’s a good idea to ensure you and your employees have self-service access to pay statements and other payroll reports.
If you’re located in Wisconsin, you can require your employees to receive wages by direct deposit. However, there cannot be any cost to the employee to participate in the program. If you’re an employer in Illinois, you cannot require employees to receive their wages by direct deposit, but you certainly can offer and encourage it!
7) Communicate proactively with employees
A time of crisis — especially one of this magnitude — can be unsettling and anxiety-inducing for employees. Many of them will look to their employers for answers and reassurance. As a best practice, you should communicate early and often with your employees. This will help to mitigate the stress of the unknown and make sure everyone’s aligned. To keep employees from guessing, establish a regular company-wide communication cadence. An ever-changing public health emergency like COVID-19 may warrant daily communications with your employees.
At a minimum, your employee communications should cover these key components:
- Breaking national and local news alerts. Chances are, your employees are already overwhelmed with ongoing coronavirus updates (sigh, aren’t we all?). At the same time, there’s plenty of misinformation out there. It’s in your best interest to ensure your employees are educated with accurate and up-to-date information so they can keep themselves safe and healthy.
- Company updates on policies or procedures. As the virus becomes more widespread, continue to share measures you’re taking to support your employees and keep them healthy. This will likely change as the situation develops. Openly communicating with your employees on how you’re addressing the situation will reassure them that you’re on top of it.
- Operational changes. If your company is adopting new work practices as the virus spreads, such as mandating employees to work from home or limiting in-person meetings, communicate those to your employees. If the pandemic has significantly impacted your business’s bottom line and you foresee larger-scale operational changes, those should be communicated appropriately so employees are prepared.
- Additional resources and referrals. Share useful links with accurate and critical information for your employees, such as the CDC’s webpage on COVID-19, OSHA’s overview on the virus, and information on employee rights. Additionally, designate a key point of contact at your company for employees’ questions or concerns.
It’s natural for people to have concerns about any crisis, but even more so with a global pandemic. And during a time when your employees are social distancing, or even self-quarantining, they may feel alone. Acknowledge their concerns and be compassionate. This is a hard time for everyone.
8) Establish a communication protocol
Whether forced or voluntary, many employers are moving to a remote work model in the wake of COVID-19. As your business transitions, it’s likely you’ll need to adopt a new go-to method for communicating (gone are the days of waltzing over to your coworker’s desk with questions). If your employees are working remotely, or even on staggered schedules to reduce staff volume, establish a communication protocol so employees know how to reach each other easily. Whether you require employees to log on to an interoffice messaging app each day, or you plan to have daily status meetings via video conferencing, put a universal plan in place. This will facilitate smoother communication and help to maintain productivity.
9) Watch out for scammers
To add to the stress of this uncertain time, scammers are taking advantage of fears surrounding the coronavirus. From robocalls pitching coronavirus treatments to phishing emails about checks from the government, remind your employees to be on the lookout for scams. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has introduced a whole slew of them, but if your employees stick to these tried-and-true tips, it will help them steer clear of scams.
10) Implement alternative work arrangements
As more states issue or extend “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many employers are figuring out how to maintain their operations remotely. Even if you don’t fall into this category, and you’re still allowed to have employees come into the workplace, strongly consider voluntarily transitioning to a remote workforce as a precautionary measure. From video conferencing apps to document sharing tools and more, figure out what your employees will need to stay productive and communicate effectively. While it’ll take extra time and effort to set employees up for remote work, it’s worthwhile if it will safeguard them from the outbreak. The earlier you can do this, the better.
Of course, not all businesses are conducive to a work-from-home model. If an all-remote workforce isn’t practical for your business, brainstorm ways to minimize the number of employees in the office at the same time. If it’s feasible for your business to conduct some level of remote work, explore staggering shifts for your employees, where they rotate between remote and onsite work. If you need to temporarily streamline your workforce, cross-train employees to perform critical functions so you’re able to operate effectively with a leaner team.
11) Limit unnecessary visitors and travel
Thankfully, we live in an age where it’s easy to conduct meetings over the phone or web. To the extent possible, restrict outside visitors and in-person meetings to protect your employees from coronavirus exposure.
Also, think about if you can postpone or reduce business travel. While domestic travel is still permitted, many employers are imposing work travel bans as a precautionary measure. Unless it’s absolutely critical for business, cancel or postpone work travel to lessen the possibility of infection spreading through your workplace. If travel is necessary, employees should self-quarantine for at least 14 days and stay in close contact with HR on their status upon their return.
12) Maintain infection prevention measures
In an effort to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 or spreading it in the workplace, employers should remind employees to take basic preventive measures and safety precautions, including:
- Washing their hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoiding touching their eyes, nose and mouth.
- Covering sneezes or coughs with tissues, if possible, or else with a sleeve or shoulder.
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, tables, desks, and handrails regularly.
- Using non-contact methods of greeting, rather than handshaking.
- Increasing ventilation by opening windows or adjusting air conditioning.
13) Plan for worst case and post-pandemic scenarios
As consumers and governments pull back on activity to slow the spread of the coronavirus, business owners are forced to face the implications for their businesses and their employees. With a situation that’s outside of their control, it’s advisable for business owners to consider worst-case scenarios. If available financial support and disaster loans aren’t a viable option, consider if shift reductions or reductions in force might enable you to sustain your business. But in doing so, make sure you’re aware of the compliance issues related to these measures.
With that said, there will come a time to start thinking about the days, months, and years following the COVID-19 pandemic. There's no denying that the business world will have some rebuilding and changing to do. Think about what this means for your industry, business, and workforce and start to formulate a post-pandemic plan to ensure that when the time comes, you can move forward on a prosperous and safe path.
We are here for you.
Like the rest of the country, we’re closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation. As we do, we’ll keep you posted on the latest developments, and how they may impact your business. But, to make sure you don’t miss updates, follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook.
And remember, despite the fact that we’re all apart (thanks to social distancing), we are all in this together.