By Tom Davis, Vice President, Susan Davis International
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation, governors responded by asking or ordering people to stay home and businesses to close. Nonessential businesses like gyms, barbershops, shopping malls, amusement parks, bowling alleys shuttered their doors. Even churches closed, which tells us that we’re a very different nation from the one that came into existence in 1776. Pot stores and liquor stores are essential, churches not so much.
We adapted by resorting to survival tactics such as home schooling, do it yourself massages, online shopping, and sharing unsubstantiated rumors about the origins and implications of the coronavirus. But mostly those of us who didn’t need to go to work stayed home. We practiced social distancing, even if it meant giving up closely interacting with people we like and love, because we got the logic. The less we’re out and about, the fewer people with whom we interact, the lower the chance that we will get the virus and either directly suffer its consequences or transmit it to others.
If you have access to any source of information it will not have gone unnoticed that the upside safety aspect of staying at home has a rather large downside economic effect. More than thirty million Americans have filed for unemployment over the past six weeks. In February the unemployment rate stood at 3.5 %. It’s now 14.7%, and by some estimates could be heading north of 25%. Over 5 million workers have had their hours reduced.
The US economy is projected to decline by 5.9% through year’s end. The Wall Street Journal suggested the cost of the pandemic-induced shutdown to the US economy could be upwards of one trillion dollars each month. One does not have to be a highly trained economist to think this represents a rather large problem.
Against this backdrop we are seeing small signs of a reawakening of the American economy. States are beginning to encourage additional economic activity. Tattoo parlors are back serving the needs of an ink deprived nation. Restaurants are opening their doors while taking measures to encourage social distancing. Starbucks is finding ways to gradually increase the amount of caffeine in our systems, which should have a salutary effect.
Some of our political leaders, one eye firmly fixed on the devastated economy, the other possibly glancing ahead to an upcoming election, are clamoring for a faster pace. The faster pace argument runs headlong into the messaging from scientists and health care leaders who warn that increased social interaction inevitably will create a higher incidence of virus transmission and cause more deaths. In truth the open fast and be safe argument is a bit facile. Moving quickly has clear implications for safety and they are not good.
Interestingly it appears the political leaders who are urging “opening up the economy” are well out in front of much of the population. Surveys suggest many people are not enthused about getting out and about, or going back to their workplaces and resuming lives interrupted. In a rather remarkable way we’ve created a temporary new economy, built around telework and social distancing. This economy is not going to change overnight.
To be sure there are and will be people who cannot work from home, and will be compelled to venture forth to do their jobs. This is creating some difficult situations for businesses. Amazon, for example, has told white collar employees they will telework until at least October, while its warehouse workers are hard at work. Facebook and Google will not have their workers return until 2021.
Of course these tech giants may be better situated to endure and even prosper while their workforce is teleworking. Many other companies are struggling with how to balance workforce concerns and competitive needs.
In the near term, it is apparent that there are no easy answers. But business leaders must carefully think through both the decision to have workers return to their workplaces, and how they address the obvious concerns that exist in what is still a population living in fear of COVID-19. However you choose to proceed, your decisions must acknowledge that risk posed by COVID-19 is not going away, and that individuals who work for you are going to have varying perspectives about the nature of the risk. A few suggestions:
Don’t Dismiss Legitimate Concerns….You have to discuss what you are doing to provide a safe workplace. Keep in mind that we are a litigious society, and there is likely to be a ton of litigation arising out of issues associated with COVID-19. There will be employees who believe the risk of returning is too great, and you need to think through how you will handle those on a case by case basis.
Do Be Flexible….We are in a unique situation where one size does not fit all. If you have employees with characteristics that make them more vulnerable, be prepared to allow them to work from home longer. Think about ways you can help with commonly held concerns about public transportation and inadequate social distancing.
Don’t Make Unfounded Assertions About Safety….You may be convinced that the risk is low and that the safety measure you’ve instituted will make your workplace a very safe environment. Not only will people now armed to the teeth with information about COVID-19 poke holes in that argument, but a single case of COVID-19 arising in your workforce will blow those assertions to smithereens. The infected individual may not have contracted the virus in your workplace, hard to prove, doesn’t really matter.
Do Anchor Actions and Policies in Well Established Authorities….Your workers look to public health authorities for guidance and assurance. Make sure whatever actions you take are consistent with CDC guidance. Familiarize yourself with OSHA requirements associated with COVID-19. Take the time to look at the National Labor Relations Board’s website. Basing your actions on authoritative sources is both reassuring and legally defensible.
And finally, Do Have A Contingency Plan For An Employee Contracting COVID-19….It’s likely that at some point one of your employees will get the virus. You need to know what you will do when that happens, and how you will communicate with other employees should the situation arise. Get this planned before you reopen your door.