Three people talking with reflection of skyscrapers overlaid.

It appears that we are in “hurry up and wait” mode. We know that COVID-19 (i.e., the 2019 Novel Coronavirus) has been diagnosed among individuals in the United States, and, reportedly, has been contained. We also know that upon diagnoses in South Korea and Italy, the virus began to spread rapidly. We have all been watching China to see how severely the closures of businesses would impact its economy and the global supply chain. Early this week, numerous media outlets reported that the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 1,032 points or 3.6 percent. It appears that a number of industries are seeing an impact—certainly the airline and travel industries, and even industries involved in high-end consumer goods like bridal dresses. How deep of an impact the virus will have will depend on any number of factors including the duration of the spread of COVID-19.

Proactive Steps: Education, Planning, and Beyond

While the coronavirus has not yet been declared a pandemic, it is an epidemic in China. As it begins to spread to other countries, it may become a pandemic. Many employers have dusted off their pandemic policies and updated them from the days of Zika, Ebola, and H1N1. In doing so, companies are reviewing any possible exceptions to their attendance policies and determining in advance whether time off will be paid or unpaid. Companies are being proactive in educating their employees and in promoting the only preventative measures of which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised including washing hands frequently with warm water and soap (or if that is not available using an alcohol based sanitizer), coughing and/or sneezing into one’s elbow or a tissue that can be quickly disposed of, and staying a distance from anyone who is sick. Companies are also making decisions about when to ask employees to stay home from work or have them work from home if they recently have traveled to specific areas or have any possibility of having been infected. Finally, companies are paying attention to any signals that there might be discrimination or hostility toward employees of Chinese or Asian descent. To the extent possible, it is helpful for the efficiency of workplaces for companies to take these measures in advance and be prepared for what might come.

Crisis Management Policies

Even though these measures are really all we have in our COVID-19 tool bags, they may seem insignificant in relation to the magnitude of the virus’s impact so far. The unknown can be concerning, and it seems like everyone is holding their breath . . . waiting. We still believe the best course of action is to remain calm and take actions to help your workforce remain calm. In addition, employers can take the actions listed above and ensure that they are prepared if COVID-19 does become an epidemic/pandemic and employees are impacted.

There is one more course of action that may be prudent for companies at this time. As noted above, there are indications that the virus may have more of an impact on the global economy. Just as the precautions above are ones we hope will never be needed, so too is this suggestion: Companies in businesses most likely to be impacted by a disruption in a supply chain or, alternatively, by a loss of workers may need to plan in advance how to continue to function with a reduced workforce because of illness or how to reduce a workforce because of a business disruption. Some form of a crisis management and recovery plan would enable a business to move quickly if it becomes necessary.

For example, healthcare entities frequently have to plan on how to meet crisis staffing needs in the event of epidemics/pandemics. So too, may other industries need to plan to meet the impact of reduced demand or availability of materials with layoffs or reductions in force. While a detailed plan may be premature, having a process and/or a team ready to address needs should it become necessary may turn out to be wise preparation whether needed or not. Allowing sufficient time to review any proposed job eliminations for discrimination or other issues is something to consider as well. Having thought through these issues in advance will allow a company to move more nimbly should it find it necessary.

Hopefully this will be no more than an exercise in planning. COVID-19 has been an unknown and it is always better to be prepared than to simply react.

Ogletree Deakins’ coronavirus team has covered various aspects of 2019-nCoV, including an overview of recent developments, tips from a workplace safety perspective, a reminder that national origin discrimination due to the virus is prohibited, and its effects on international employers.

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