International Policy Digest

Andrew Cashin/MTA
Business /08 May 2020
05.08.20

5 Health and Safety Tips for Businesses When the Country Reopens

There’s been a lot of talk lately about reopening state economies and getting folks back to work.

It’s a controversial notion, with many experts warning against acting too quickly. We know that livelihoods and economic growth are at stake. Still, we won’t fully understand the ramifications of reopening the country until businesses are back up and running and people are reporting to their jobs again.

With that said, companies can begin taking steps right now to manage some of the risk. Employees have a right to a safe workplace — and employers have a responsibility to provide it. What can businesses do to maintain workers’ health and safety in the post-COVID world?

1. Expand Work-From-Home Opportunities Where Possible

Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017 and 2018 showed that telecommuting has been slow to take off. Only 20% of workers said they’d been paid to work at home occasionally. A paltry 12% put in a single work-from-home day per month.

Moreover, WFH opportunities benefit high earners disproportionately. Nearly half of the individuals in the top 25% of the income spectrum did paid work at home in 2017 and 2018, compared to 4% of workers occupying the bottom quartile.

Not every job can be performed at home. However, there are significant opportunities in front of us now to expand telecommuting programs. As businesses reopen, owners should adopt remote working technology and reconsider which roles must be performed on-premises and which ones are a good fit for telecommuting.

2. Separate Employee Workstations and Reconsider Workflows

Grocery store workers and people who have used a self-checkout over the past couple of months are already familiar with this health and safety tip. Most stores have closed down every-other checkout conveyor and self-service kiosk in efforts to keep people properly distanced.

Other workplaces will have to follow suit once the country reopens. From factories with assembly lines to warehouses and distribution centers, owners and managers will have to consider alternative layouts to keep employees productive in their tasks while maintaining the recommended 6-foot distancing minimum.

It’ll take time to reposition equipment and redraw workflows and traffic patterns, especially in larger facilities, but it’s a critical step to take.

3. Check Employees’ Vitals Each Day

This health and safety tip might feel like a step too far for some, but this is an unprecedented situation. We all have to sacrifice at least a small measure of our comfort for the greater good.

Some of the larger employers already take employees’ temperatures when they report for duty. The CDC hasn’t provided official guidance on this matter, but health experts praise it as a step in the right direction, even if it’s not a comprehensive safeguard.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared in March that employers have the right to ask workers if they’re experiencing signs of COVID-19 and to take their temperatures as a safeguard. The EEOC notes that not every carrier demonstrates symptoms. Even so, these measures should prove helpful in keeping at least some sick employees from infecting others.

4. Adopt OSHA Recommendations for Workplace Improvements

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration exists to keep employees safe on the job. OSHA has spent a lot of time during the pandemic drawing up recommendations for employers on how to make the workplace as safe as can be under the circumstances. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Instruct employees not to share phones, office supplies, and desks. Limit the sharing of tools and workplace equipment as much as possible.
  • Outfit offices with tissues, no-touch trash cans, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol or greater. Provide expectations for regularly cleaning personal workspaces and communal areas before and after use.
  • Take measures to improve ventilation in the workplace, including installing higher-efficiency air filters.
  • Draw up a plan for taking immediate action if an employee starts to show symptoms while on the job, including isolation, followed by sending them home.
  • Eliminate face-to-face meetings. Use bulletin boards or audio announcements to communicate information that would have been delivered in a group setting.
  • Create additional or alternating shifts, if possible, to maintain productivity while reducing the number of employees present at any given time.

Some of these recommendations are pricier than others. For some workplaces, the changes — like improving airflow and ventilation — may be long overdue anyway. Something as simple as replacing standard doorknobs with elbow-friendly levers could go a long way in containing the virus.

5. Pay Sick Employees to Remain at Home

We’ve learned two things about the United States during this pandemic. The first is that able-bodied people want to work. The second is that we have to stop asking politely for paid sick leave. Some 179 other countries have already recognized this as an essential right for workers. The people of America must demand the same respect.

According to Mark Cuban, how employers treat their workers during this crisis “is going to define their brand for decades.” He’s right. However, a huge portion of America’s workforce quite literally cannot afford to stay home even if they’ve fallen ill or suspect they’re symptomatic. These are the folks bringing food to our tables, paving our roads, and caring for our children and seniors.

As the country opens back up, it’s time for workers and employers to come together and end this glaring shortcoming in our social safety net. Paid sick leave is a human right, now more than ever.

How to Reopen the Economy Safely

Governors and members of state assemblies are actively working with health officials on timelines for reopening the economy.

As they do, employers must recognize their responsibility to help keep workers healthy and safe. Some of these businesspeople-turned-politicians have shown naked contempt for worker safety and dignity during the epidemic. For better or for worse, that means the business community has a leadership vacuum to fill.

Keeping workers well-supplied with PPE is quite literally the bare minimum. Employers can and must revisit significant portions of their business models if we’re to avoid another surge in COVID cases and deaths. Make telecommuting more widely available. Implement safety and health technology in the workplace. Pay workers to stay home if they’re sick. If we do these things, we won’t just survive the pandemic — we may even emerge as a stronger and more civilized country.