Return-to-Work Planning Guide: 10 Questions to Ask Before Bringing Employees Back

June 12, 2020

As each of the 50 states enter initial phases of reopening after months of widespread business closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, employers planning to return employees to workplaces must navigate a slew of state and local regulations, as well as the contours of guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

The shifting legal landscape requires an individualized return-to-work plan based on the location and dynamics of each workplace and the industry in which you operate. But there are a number of common questions employers should be prepared to address before reopening their workplaces. 

  1. When can employees return to the workplace?
    1. Does the CDC or state or local guidance in your jurisdiction prohibit return unless you have an exception, strongly or otherwise recommend remaining remote, or is it generally open?
      1. Are you in a community no longer requiring significant mitigation?
      2. Will reopening be in compliance with state and local orders?
      3. Do you have a substantial number of employees the CDC classifies as high risk for severe illness?
    2. If your business leases as opposed to owns its facility or office, what restrictions or conditions are imposed by the landlord? Do those make it feasible and practicable to return?
    3. OSHA classifies workforces on a scale from lower, to medium, to high and very high risk in the workplace. Have you evaluated where your primary workforce falls on that scale? 
    4. What are other businesses like yours in your community doing? Does that impact how you approach the answer?
  2. Which employees should return to the workplace?
    1. Will you have the same answer for all employees when you return, or will you continue to have some employees work remotely for a period of time?
      1. Do you have employees who can work remotely who have high-risk conditions or live with someone with high-risk conditions?
      2. Do you have employees who can work remotely who have child care challenges imposed by restrictions on schools, child care or summer camps?
      3. Does having some part of your employee population work remotely enhance your ability to maintain social distancing requirements?
    2. How do you plan to determine who will return at what stage? 
      1. Will the return be mandatory or voluntary?
      2. Will you return in phases or all at once?
      3. Who will return first – volunteers, key decision-makers, by seniority, or will it be random? Do you have a process to analyze this decision for potential adverse impacts?
      4. Will you stagger start times, shifts or even days in the facility?
      5. If portions of your workforce have been furloughed, do you have a plan to bring those employees back from furlough before adding new hires?
  3. Are you prepared to address physical distancing, hygiene and sanitation requirements?
    1. Is your facility capable of allowing employees to return and maintaining social distancing in the workplace?
    2. Have you evaluated the workplace to determine if modifications need to be made to ensure protection of employees who may be exposed to outside visitors, like delivery and maintenance personnel? Have you put those in place? This could include plastic shields, stand-off lines from counters or other measures.
    3. Have you considered any steps to modify the workplace for social distancing measures, such as evaluating the maximum number of people who can be in common areas like conference rooms, kitchens or dining areas?
    4. Will you require daily cleaning of personal equipment like briefcases, hard hats and purses as employees arrive each day? Is that necessary?
    5. Will you have one-way hallways or walkways?
    6. Does your office cleaning program include increased sanitation of common areas?
    7. How will you communicate these changes to your employees?
  4. Will you require employees to wear face coverings in the workplace?
    1. There is varying guidance on face coverings in the workplace. Have you considered whether you will require them, encourage them or leave it up to the discretion of the individual employee?
    2. If required, will you provide face coverings? 
    3. What type of face covering will you provide? The CDC discourages use of N95 masks in workplaces where there is not a high risk of exposure to COVID-19, so will you provide disposable surgical masks or cloth face coverings?
    4. If you want to require face coverings, have you considered what training and maintenance requirements are involved pursuant to OSHA guidance?
  5. Will you implement employee screening? What protocols will you follow?
    1. For employees entering the workplace, government agencies either permit or in some cases encourage or even require employers to screen employees for symptoms of and exposure to COVID-19, including temperature screening.
      1. What type of screening will you require for employees entering the workplace?
      2. Will you conduct the screening on-site before the start of the day?
      3. Who will conduct the screening and what protocols will they follow?
      4. Will you provide additional personal protective equipment for the screening?
      5. How will you record the information?
      6. How will you store the information?
      7. How will you maintain its confidentiality consistent with EEOC guidance?
    2. If the employees must wait for some period of time in a screening line, will that time be compensated?
    3. Can you accomplish the screening remotely so that an employee who should not come to the workplace never has to leave home? How will you do that?
  6. Will you allow outside visitors into your workplace (beyond basic deliveries)?
    1. If not generally allowing visitors, will you have some protocol for exceptions?
    2. If you allow visitors, will you have the visitor subject to some kind of health screening?
    3. How will you obtain the screening before the visitor arrives so  you can react to a screening that precludes the visit? 
    4. Will you ask visitors to complete any kind of liability waiver or acknowledgment regarding maintaining social distancing, hygiene and sanitation protocols?
  7. Will you allow (or even require) business travel?
    1. What will be the conditions?
    2. Will you allow plane travel? 
    3. Will you allow international travel?
    4. How do you plan to address the varying state and local travel bans and stay-home orders?
    5. Will there be restrictions on employees returning to the office after they travel, regardless of any symptoms?
  8. How will you address symptomatic employees or employees who have been exposed to symptomatic individuals?
    1. Do you have systems in place for contact tracing?
    2. Do you need to close the location?
    3. Do you need to send employees other than the one with symptoms or exposure home? If so, for how long?
    4. If someone must be sent home who is not sick but to avoid exposure of others, will that be paid time, and will you expect them to work remotely if they can?
    5. Will you plan to notify other employees who work proximate to the person, even if you do not send them home? What guidance will you give them?
    6. What will you do to maintain confidentiality of medical information?
    7. What protocols will you follow for allowing employees to return to the workplace after being sent home?
  9. Are your employee leave policies current and do they address pandemic-related leave?
    1. Have you considered COVID-19-related sick leave enacted by state and local jurisdictions where you operate?
    2. Is your entity covered by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)?
    3. Is your existing leave policy sufficiently flexible to address leave related to COVID-19?
    4. Will you provide any additional paid sick leave and under what circumstances?
    5. Will you lay off employees who cannot or will not return or furlough them?
  10. Do you have a process in place to address employee requests for workplace accommodations?
    1. Will you treat it like an FMLA/ADA accommodation?
    2. Who will be the decision-maker?
    3. What criteria will you use?
    4. Will you use the same standard at every location or vary based on state and local situations?
    5. For employees currently working remotely, how do you plan to address those who oppose a physical return on the basis that they worked well remotely during the pandemic?

Please contact Reed L. Russell, Raquel Ramirez Jefferson or any other member of Phelps’ Labor and Employment team if you have questions or need compliance advice and guidance. For more information related to COVID-19, see Phelps’ COVID-19: Client Resource Portal.