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!

 

Content Spotlight

Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

In an effort to create more diversity-friendly workplaces, tech giants like Google and Facebook have been training employees to recognize their unconscious biases. As the term implies, these biases are below the surface, unintended, and often undesired. They’re implicit rather than explicit.

Explicit biases are evident in what people say and do, and chances are those who have such prejudices are aware of them. The manager who talks negatively about “the millennials” knows she holds the younger generation in low regard. The person who uses racist slurs doesn’t try to hide his dislike of other races. The executive who believes women shouldn’t be in leadership roles avoids recommending a female subordinate for promotion. These biases are all on the surface. Consequently, it’s relatively easy to see the connection between these individuals’ prejudices and their behavior in the workplace. Not so with implicit or unconscious biases. Without realizing it, we may prefer to associate with younger people rather than older people, or enjoy the company of women more than men, or react more amicably to people of our own race. More concerning: we may unconsciously associate one group with positive stereotypes and another group with negative ones. Recent studies in psychology suggest that we all have implicit biases and that these biases influence our decisions.

In the workplace, these implicit biases lead to micro-aggressions—small slights or offenses that may go mostly unnoticed, but can add up to systematic discrimination or even a hostile work environment. Research shows, for example, that resumes with white-sounding names are more likely to get callbacks than resumes with black-sounding names. And it’s not because companies have official policies or practices against hiring black people; it’s the result of unconscious bias.

Unfortunately for those affected, unconscious bias is difficult to prove. It’s one thing to demonstrate that resumes with white-sounding names get more callbacks; it’s quite another to prove that a particular hiring manager gave special treatment to white applicants in a specific instance. And even if we could demonstrate implicit biases in the workplace, penalizing people may not be the best way to address the behavior. After all, they’re not deliberately chosen or the consequence of willful neglect.

 


“Recent studies in psychology suggest that we all have implicit biases and that these biases influence our decisions. In the workplace, these implicit biases lead to micro-aggressions…”


So what’s the solution? The jury is still out on that.

Some companies are trying to make their employees more aware of their unconscious biases by having them take implicit association tests. As of now, however, we don’t yet know how effective these “raise awareness” efforts will prove to be—if they have any positive effect at all.

Alternatively, some companies are using hiring applications that hide identifying information so that race, gender, and other protected classes can’t be taken into account early in the interview process. While these indirect efforts won’t remove people’s unconscious biases, they may help mitigate their effects on employment decisions, thereby reducing discrimination in the workplace.

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

How You Can Support the Mental Health of Your Employees During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health. People have experienced financial hardship, additional challenges with childcare and school cancellations, job loss, reduced hours, sickness, and grief. The future is uncertain, and the present is extra stressful. And to make matters worse, many of the networks and practices that people use to support their mental health are currently unavailable due to social distancing.

In this environment, where people are increasingly anxious and may be socially isolated, it’s even more important that managers support the mental health of their team members — both those who are coming into the workplace and those working from home. High stress can quickly destroy trust, inhibit empathy, and break down teams — each of which makes it more difficult for people to do their jobs. Fortunately, employers can provide some support. Here are some things employers can do to help employees manage stress and tend to their mental health:

When possible, give employees a little extra time to slow down and rest

Employees may need a moment to breathe or a day to regain their peace of mind, and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for time to take care of themselves. The ability to occasionally function at a medium (or even slow) pace should be built into performance expectations so that employees can avoid burnout or breakdown.

Offer PTO, mental health benefits, and flexible schedules if appropriate

In some cases, employees who want to get the mental health care they need can’t afford it. Losing pay from a missed work shift might be too great a hardship, and effective treatments might be financially out of reach. These financial hindrances can exacerbate conditions like anxiety and depression. In other cases, employees can afford the time off and the treatments, but they can’t make regular appointments work with their schedules. If you can offer paid time off, health insurance benefits, or flexible schedules, these can help employees get the care they need.

Offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

An EAP gives employees access to expert, confidential assistance for substance abuse issues, relationship troubles, financial problems, and mental health conditions. These services are offered through an outside provider that connects employees with the appropriate resources and professionals. These programs enable you to provide professional assistance to employees while allowing them confidentiality at work. EAPs are also inexpensive, costing between just 75 cents and 2 dollars per employee per month.

Make reasonable accommodations when possible

If an employee informs you that they have anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition, and they request an accommodation, you should begin the interactive process to determine what reasonable accommodation(s) you can provide in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA applies when an employer has 15 or more employees, but many states have similar laws that require employers to make accommodations at an even lower employee count. You can learn more about the ADA on the HR Support Center.

Create digital spaces for friendships to grow

Loneliness in the workplace can be a serious issue, with significant negative effects on both employees and the workplace. Right now, with many employees working from home, it’s harder to spot signs of it. Employers can facilitate friendships and connections between employees by setting up virtual chat programs and video conferencing apps.

Employees also need to be reassured that it’s fine for them to take a little time during the workday to reach out to others about non-work matters and participate in virtual games and other fun group activities. Managers can set the tone by participating in fun chats and activities and encouraging employees to join in. Helping employees foster friendships is not only the right thing to do, it can also reduce turnover and increase engagement.

Promote good mental (and physical) health in the workplace

Healthy habits are important for everyone to practice. Consider setting time aside during the week or month for employees to participate in activities like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness that develop and strengthen these habits. If you aren’t familiar with these practices, solicit the help of your employees. One or more of them may know a lot about these activities and be able to assist you in setting up a workplace program or modifying a program for employees currently working from home.

Make use of additional resources

During this time, employees might benefit from this three-page list of several virtual recovery resources from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and this COVID-19 resource and information guide from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.