The Coronavirus

What Employers Should Know
Combating Coronavirus and Other Infectious Diseases

Infectious disease outbreaks happen around the world on a regular basis. And with a mobile society that travels often, even diseases that are primarily confined to a specific area have the potential to appear anywhere. The most recent threat is the novel coronavirus that is rapidly spreading in China and has appeared in the United States.

Accompanying that threat is often fear, fueled by both legitimate and questionable news sources that go viral and quickly spread online. As awareness of infectious disease rises in our world, so does the desire to prevent exposure and manage any occurrence in the workplace. When we consider other communicable disease-like the flu—we know what to do and how to do it. So why is it that we suddenly become paralyzed by a new pandemic ailment? All too often, it’s a lack of knowledge.

When an outbreak happens, it’s important to communicate accurate information about the disease’s risks, measures being taken to mitigate them, and how your existing policies work with the current situation. Also key is expressing your company’s concern for the well-being of your workforce.

Below are answers to a few questions our team has answered during previous infectious disease outbreaks.

Question: What are a company’s concerns, rights, and responsibilities if an employee traveled to an area where there has been an infectious disease outbreak and is now back at work?

Answer: Employers have a general duty to protect employees from recognized hazards in the workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

However, it’s rarely necessary to keep asymptomatic employees out of work following travel to an area affected by an infectious disease outbreak. For example, during the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) instead recommended specific precautions and encouraged people to monitor their health for 21 days following potential exposure.

During an infectious disease outbreak, most employers likely do not need to take any specific actions. Unless the government outlines a different strategy, here are a few steps employers may take:

  • Stay calm. Educate employees about how the disease is spread, symptoms, and best practices to avoid transmission.
  • Encourage employees to self-report any potential symptoms (either for themselves or family members who have recently returned from one of the affected areas) and to request the use of PTO, sick leave, or a leave of absence if symptoms develop.
  • Establish an emergency preparedness plan that includes reporting procedures, communication plans, and medical options.

The CDC website generally recommends specific precautions for people traveling to an area affected by a current infectious disease outbreak and encourages people to monitor their health following potential exposure. If you remain concerned about potential exposure and liability, we recommend consulting legal counsel for definitive guidance and risk assessment.

Question: With the latest infectious disease scare, what should we make sure we include in a policy to minimize health risks from employees coming into the office while sick?

  • A statement that employees should not come to work if they have been diagnosed with a contagious disease, experience certain symptoms, or have reason to believe they have been exposed;
  • Procedures for notifying appropriate personnel of the absence;
  • An outline of the process (if applicable) to work remotely, if reasonable under the circumstances, and something the employee is interested in; and
  • Procedures for notifying appropriate personnel and medical certifications (if any) required for the return to work.

As with any policy, you’ll want to make sure it complies with relevant statutes in your industry and state prior to implementation. In particular, if you’re in a state with statutory sick leave, you may not be able to follow your normal call-out procedures (e.g., advance notice or finding a replacement for their shift).

Equal Pay Act

Massachusetts Strengthens Its Equal Pay Act
News Brief

The Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (MEPA), passed in 1945, was the first state law of its kind. But it hasn’t provided enough detail to be useful to employees or stiff enough penalties to be compelling for employers. The amendments to MEPA, which take effect July 1, 2018, make the law significantly more relevant.

 

Equal Pay for Equal Work
Under the updated MEPA, employers are prohibited from paying employees who do “comparable work” different wages because of sex. Wages include all forms of compensation, including benefits. Comparable work is work that involves substantially similar skill, effort, and responsibility and is performed under similar working conditions. Employees who do comparable work may not necessarily have the same duties or even be in the same department.

 

Acceptable Reasons for Pay Differentials
The only acceptable reasons for a pay differential between employees of different sexes who do comparable work are the following:

  • A seniority system (time missed because of pregnancy or protected parental, family, or medical leave may not reduce seniority);
  • A merit system;
  • A system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production, sales, or revenue;
  • The geographic location in which a job is performed;
  • Education, training, or experience—to the extent such factors are reasonably related to the job;
  • Travel that is a regular and necessary condition of the job.
  • Note that there is no catch-all provision, such as “or any other factor not related to sex.” Employers should ensure that differentials can be fully explained by one or more factors from this six-point list.

 

Salary History Inquiry Ban
The law makes it illegal for employers to ask an applicant about their salary history until an offer of employment that includes compensation has been made. If an applicant volunteers their salary history, an employer may verify it, but employers should not in any way encourage candidates to disclose this information. Salary history is not an acceptable reason for a pay differential.

Discussion of Wages Must Be Allowed
MEPA bans pay secrecy practices and policies, such as blanket prohibitions on discussing wages or assertions that wages are confidential.

 

An employee’s right to discuss their wages is protected federally by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, although it only applies to non-management and requires that employees are acting together to improve their wages. The Massachusetts law, however, applies to all employees and does not require any group action. For instance, under MEPA, a middle manager may go to their supervisor and inquire about the wages of the CFO, their peers, or their subordinates simply because they are curious on their own behalf. They may also discuss their own wages with whomever they like, as well as the wages of other employees who shared that information with them freely.

 

The law does not require that an employer (or other employees) provide an employee with the requested wage information, but it does prohibit any adverse action or retaliation against an employee for asking.

Self-Evaluation and Remediation as a Defense
Employers will have an affirmative defense under the law if they have undertaken a good faith self-evaluation within the last three years and can show that reasonable progress has been made toward eliminating any pay discrepancies. The self-evaluation must be of reasonable detail and scope.

 

Action Items

  • Conduct a self-evaluation. Assess your overall pay structure, pay bands for job groups, and individual wages. Focus on whether differences in pay can be fully and reasonably explained by the six factors allowed under MEPA, and if they cannot, make adjustments.
  • Be aware that you cannot lower the compensation of one or more employees to equalize pay.
  • Remove any policies related to pay secrecy from handbooks, confidentiality policies, and offer letters, and ensure that those with the authority to discipline are aware of the protections provided by the law.
  • Train anyone involved in the interview process to steer clear of salary history questions.
  • Ensure that your application forms don’t ask for salary history. We have a compliant application available in the HR Support Center, which you can find by using the search bar and typing in Employment Application.
  • For additional information, guidance on performing a self-evaluation, and a policy-and-practices checklist, bookmark or download this guide from the Massachusetts Attorney General.

Ask the  HR Support Center Pro
HR Support Members, need some help from one of our HR Pros? Go ahead and ask. They’re standing by. Ask the Pro 

You don’t have to go it along.  Chat live with your HR Concierge. We’re here to help!

 

The HR Support Center News Update

Content Spotlight
Natural Disaster Dialogue

Natural disasters create challenging HR issues and questions that add stress to employers and employees at the worst possible moments — when they need to be focusing on healing, recovery, and rebuilding.

At the HR Support Center, we want to make sure you have a place to turn for help with navigating these challenges, so your employees can get through the crisis.

To help alleviate some potential stress, we’ve put together the top five frequently asked HR questions and answers during an emergency:

  • What is the standard for paying an employee after a natural disaster?
  • Our business is temporarily closed due to inclement weather. We have some employees that offered to work from home until the business can reopen. Can we offer this?
  • What job-protected leaves might apply to a natural disaster?
  • Our company wants to set up a way for their coworkers to donate vacation time to an employee who was greatly affected by this natural disaster. Is this possible?
  • When a business closes due to a natural disaster, is unemployment available to the employees?

 

Download The FAQ

Employment Law

The Three Ways HR Makes Employment More Profitable

HR covers a lot of territory—much of it cluttered with paperwork—but it really does have a precise business purpose. The point of HR is to make employment more profitable. HR does this in three fundamental ways. First, HR protects the organization against employment-related lawsuits and fines. Second, it reduces the costs of employment. And third, it maximizes employee productivity. In short, HR helps the employer save money and make money in all things related to employment. Protection from Lawsuits and Fines
Nothing can prevent an employer from being sued, but good HR can substantially reduce the risk of lawsuits and other costly consequences of non-compliance by ensuring that the organization follows federal, state, and municipal legal requirements.

The government has multiple agencies tasked with investigating violations and administering fines. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigates discrimination claims. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration looks into workplace hazards and safety violations. The IRS and Department of Labor may ask to see your books. And the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services might audit your I-9s.

The penalties for violations can range from amounts that are mildly inconvenient to those that are financially devastating, so you don’t want to leave these areas to chance or hope you stay under the radar. Employing people comes with risk, and it’s an HR job to manage and reduce that risk.

“Ignoring HR or neglecting its responsibilities puts the organization at greater risk, wastes money on subpar and inefficient operations, and hinders employers and employees from reaching their full potential.”

 

Reduction of Employment Costs

Competitive wages and benefits, office perks, and first-rate technology can help you find and keep great workers, and they can help you improve your products, boost your sales, and grow the business. But there are also employment costs HR can help cut. Hiring and recruitment processes can be streamlined and assessed for inefficiencies. Turnover costs can be reduced by improving your onboarding process, communications, and engagement efforts. Inefficiencies can be resolved through performance management and discipline. And offering some form of Paid Time Off can enable sick employees to stay home and rest so they don’t come to work sick, spread their germs, and reduce the productivity of the office even more than if they’d stayed home.

 

Increased Employee Productivity

In addition to preventing and reducing costs related to employment, HR can also help the organization increase its revenue by encouraging and helping employees to be more collaborative, innovative, creative, knowledgeable, skilled, and just plain better at their jobs. Coaching, training, skill development, career advancement, outside education, and culture advancements are tried-and-true productivity-building methods. They also have the added perk of directly benefiting your employees.

When HR works on maximizing productivity, it’s able to serve the interests of both the employer and employees in ways that are visible and appreciated by all parties. Employers bring in more revenue, employees develop professionally, and customers get better service. Everybody’s happy.

 

Good for Business

The business case is the case for HR. Ignoring HR or neglecting its responsibilities puts the organization at greater risk, wastes money on subpar and inefficient operations, and hinders employers and employees from reaching their full potential. Investing in HR reduces risk, eliminates inefficiencies, and improves productivity. Whether you’re a business owner, office manager, HR department of one, or on a team of HR practitioners, spending time on HR bolsters everyone’s success.

Employee Relations

There’s a Loneliness Epidemic in the Workplace – Here’s How Employers Can Help

Right now, in workplaces across the country, people are going about their jobs, seemingly content, but deep down feeling the ache of loneliness. They aren’t necessarily working alone or all by themselves with no one to talk to. They may be chatting amicably with customers on the phone or in person. Or they may work from home, but are in frequent communication with their coworkers through digital channels. Whatever the case, these lonely workers feel isolated and unnoticed.

Given all the means that people have at their disposal to connect with each other in the workplace – face-to-face meetings, email, social media, messaging apps – one might have expected loneliness in the workplace to be diminishing. Unfortunately, the number of communication channels hasn’t helped. Although technology may have increased the quantity of connections people have in the workplace, it hasn’t improved the quality of those connections.

Why It Matters at Work

The rate of American adults who report suffering from loneliness has doubled since the 1980s – it’s now at about 40%. Vivek Murphy, who served as Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017, has called loneliness an epidemic, and the negative health effects of loneliness explain why: it can lead to reduced life expectancy, limited performance and creativity, and impaired reasoning. According to Harvard Business Review, lonelier workers “perform more poorly, quit more often, and feel less satisfied with their jobs.” They report fewer promotions, more job switching, and lower job satisfaction.

To make matters worse, lonely employees are sometimes perceived to be less approachable, less committed, and less trustworthy. In turn, these perceived qualities obstruct communication, collaboration, and teamwork. A person’s loneliness can lead to misperceptions and misjudgments that ripple through a workplace – it’s a classic downward spiral.

But there is some good news! According to Gallup, people who have a best friend at work “are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being and are less likely to get injured on the job.” In contrast, “those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged.” Gallup found that the single best predictor of higher well-being and engagement was “not what people are doing – but who they are with.” The takeaway for employers: “small increases in social cohesiveness lead to large gains in production.”

What Employers Can Do

Employers can’t take away the loneliness employees feel or make friends for them, but they can have a positive impact by helping to make it easier for lonely employees to be noticed and find friends at work. Here are four things employers can do:

  1. Realize that people in your organization may be lonely. oneliness doesn’t always manifest itself in ways that you’re likely to notice amid the hustle and bustle of your daily activities. You can, however, get a sense for whether loneliness is an issue by observing whether some (or many) employees seldom socialize with others or don’t seem to have close friends at work. Remember, though, that not everyone socializes the same way, and not everyone may want a friend at work. As an employer it’s not your job to ensure that everyone has a work buddy, but you should provide an environment where building friendships is possible.
  2. Make room for friendships to grow. Friendships take time and energy to develop and maintain, and employees will only be able to make friends if they have time and energy to do so. If they’re overwhelmed with responsibilities from the start of the work day until its end, they won’t be able to make meaningful connections at work. Step one for many employers will be to ensure that work is not taking place at such a break-neck pace that employees barely have time to get a cup of coffee, let alone have a meaningful conversation with a coworker. This is a good practice not only because helping employees foster friendships is the right thing to do, but also because it will reduce turnover and increase engagement. Breaks have also been shown, time and again, to increase overall productivity.
    Setting aside break areas away from where people need to focus on work can be helpful, as can encouraging a culture in which employees know it’s fine, within limits, to socialize with one another during the work day. You can also look for ways to bring people from different teams together, such as multi-team lunches or as part of multi-team collaborations; employees might find that there are people on other teams with whom they feel a real connection.
  3. Create traditions for people to get to know one another. These are especially important for new employees who don’t yet know anyone. Obviously, you will introduce new employees to the team, but do so over a span of time and make sure there are follow-up opportunities for people to build on these initial introductions. Sending new employees to lunch or happy hour with just two or three others is a great way to help them make some quick connections that are deeper than a handshake and exchange of job titles.
    Mentorship programs, monthly social events, and group volunteer efforts are other ways to get people talking outside their typical work environment. But these opportunities need to arise often enough that employees can get beyond small talk and start to feel like they actually know one another.
  4. Offer an employee assistance program. Feelings of loneliness often go hand-in-hand with depression, anxiety, and stress. Creating space to make friends at work won’t necessarily solve these deeper issues, but you may be able to provide resources to help employees improve their mental state overall. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) give employees access to expert, confidential assistance for a range of issues such as mental health conditions, substance abuse, relationship troubles, and financial problems. These services are provided through an EAP Provider, which connects employees with the appropriate resources and professionals.

The workplace can be a lonely place, and when it is, people and productivity can suffer. By raising awareness about workplace loneliness and taking steps to create an environment in which people can easily make friends, employers can help bring the benefits of friendship to their employees and to themselves.