COVID-19 (also known as the coronavirus) is continuing to spread globally at a rapid rate, and as more cases are confirmed in the United States, it’s leading to increased anxiety and confusion over what can be done to prepare.
In general, employers are being encouraged by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be cautious and well-prepared while providing education on prevention to their employees.
For the general American public, such as workers in non-healthcare settings and where it is unlikely that work tasks create an increased risk of exposures to COVID-19, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low. The severity of illness or how many people will fall ill from COVID-19 is unknown at this time.
If there comes a time there is evidence of a COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, employers should plan to be able to respond in a flexible way to varying levels of severity, and be prepared to refine their business response plans as needed. Comparable to response policies you might have in effect for a natural disaster or other crisis, employers and HR managers need to have essential protocols in place to protect employees during an epidemic or pandemic outbreak.
Some employers have already started taking precautionary measures as the outbreak continues to advance. Large-scale international conferences scheduled for March that were expected to draw in thousands of workers are being cancelled. Travel bans are making sure people stay in or out of certain high-risk countries. Teleworking is being strongly recommended for companies with operations in high-risk areas, and employers are being encouraged to try and be more flexible on their current policies such as PTO, absence and leave, sick days, etc.
The World Health Organization released guidelines for how companies can work to prevent an outbreak. Their recommendations are similar to what they have recognized to prevent the flu, and include:
Outside of education and prevention, employers need to have strategic protocols in place to protect their workforce from COVID-19 while ensuring continuity of operations. Identify essential business functions, and how to maintain them in case of workforce absenteeism or supply chain disruption. Having the details established ahead of time will eliminate panic and confusion should the need arise. Identify a process to communicate information to employees about the response plan and continue to provide the latest health information to them. Anticipate employee fear, anxiety, rumors, and misinformation, and adjust the communication strategy accordingly.
If you need additional guidance to help protect your business and workforce, The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has an online toolkit to help you prepare a plan. You can access it here.
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