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OSHAApril 24, 2020by Stanton LawEvolving COVID-19 Best Practices

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The same tight timetable that forced businesses to quickly shutter their brick-and-mortar locations and go remote could apply for businesses opening back up. Witness Georgia governor Brian Kemp’s recent amendment to his executive order earlier this week allowing certain businesses to reopen with only five days’ notice. Regardless of whether you agree with our governor’s decision, and whether your opening comes in the next few days or next few months, as employers, you need to be ready to keep your employees safe, assured, and productive. The best practices for this unprecedented task are evolving, but we’ve highlighted below some of the more critical points to begin considering. We’ll update our guidance as things come more into focus.

Regulatory Guidance:

Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released guidance on preparing the workplace for a COVID-19 reality. Along with general information on the virus, this guidance includes best practices to help prevent the spread of workplace COVID-19. 

Determine first which positions need to return to work, focusing on the business reason for the return to work and the job duties of the employees’ positions, not just specific individual employees, i.e., which positions are critical to getting the office back up and running? Minimizing the number of folks in the workplace minimizes risk, so having present only the necessary positions and only when they’re necessary will reduce potential problems.

Second, evaluate the potential and most likely points of exposure for each position. For example, customers will be a source of exposure if employees are public facing. Co-workers would be the most likely source of exposure if employees usually work in close quarters or in “open-concept” office layouts that were heretofore in vogue. If a large segment of your workforce uses public transportation, their commute may be the most likely point of exposure. Your assessment does not have to be exhaustive but needs to be intentional to assess what threats are most applicable to your employees’ particular situations.

Then, based on the risks presented in the previous step, prepare a plan to mitigate those risks. Some practices will likely apply no matter what: promoting frequent hand washing throughout the worker’s shift, providing hand-sanitizing stations for employees and customers, keeping employees who feel sick at home, prompting employees to monitor their symptoms, allowing employees to telecommute job duties that allow it, cleaning workspaces before and after each shift, cleaning door handles and public-facing areas regularly, staggering shifts to both reduce the number of employees onsite and maintain social distancing, and implementing a reporting process for employees who experience COVID-19 symptoms or who you believe may be infected with COVID-19. Customer-facing positions may require plastic or glass screening, and certain areas may need to be cordoned off to increase distance and decrease exposure risk. Open-concept offices may need partitions installed. Can employees who typically ride a bus or train modify their work start and stop times to off-peak hours?

OSHA may require other precautions, such as gloves, masks, gowns, goggles, or other personal protective equipment, depending on the risk of exposure. Employers should consider providing employees with the appropriate PPE and certainly should revise dress code and personal appearance policies to account for the new normal.

An employee and COVID-19 walk into work…

What should employers do if an employee shows up to work and later tests positive for COVID-19? The most obvious step is to keep the infected employee home – he or she likely qualifies for some type of paid sick leave (for questions about Emergency Paid Sick Leave available under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, click here). Next, as soon possible, speak with the infected employee to identify any co-workers with whom they came in direct contact and explain to those employees they need to carefully monitor themselves for symptoms. In some circumstances, it may be necessary to ask those employees to also return home. Do not divulge the name of any infected employee.

One of the most frequent questions we’ve received concerns employers’ fear of potential liability if an employee contracts COVID-19 at work. While anyone can sue anyone for anything, of course, as a rule, and especially in the absence of wholly reckless or intentional exposure, such exposure would almost certainly be a workers’ compensation issue. We think the risk of traditional civil liability in an instance like this is low. So, while employers should take all reasonable steps to decrease the chances of any workplace exposure and transmission, we don’t believe generalized apprehensions about lawsuits should preclude otherwise sound business decisions.

Stanton Law Attorneys Are Here to Help

For more information on best practices in your workplace or measures to take after known exposure has occurred, please feel free to contact your experienced Atlanta employment attorneys at 404-531-2341 or online.