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Employers Should Prepare for Autumn and Winter Now: Risk Assessment

In normal years, fall is flu and cold season. Beginning around October, fall and winter conditions tend to facilitate the spread of contagious illnesses. That’s because more people spend more time indoors, and diseases like the flu also seem to favor the cool, dry conditions of winter.

This fall is not going to be like a normal year. Not only will people face the risk of flu, but the U.S. will also continue to contend with a once-in-a-century pandemic. Public health experts are deeply concerned. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said in an interview, “I do think the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are probably going to be one of the most difficult times that we have experienced in American public health because … of the co-occurrence of COVID and influenza.”

But the truth is, no one knows exactly what to expect. “It is hard to predict,” says Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, told Scientific American. “What’s really hard is that I don’t have a good forecast for human behavior and policy decisions that are going to be made over the next couple of months.”

That uncertainty means employers need to be prepared to deal with a wide range of possible risks. But what problems could workplaces be facing this fall and winter? Here are some of the most pressing to consider.

Staffing-related risks.
Can your workplace continue to operate were it to lose a significant percentage of its workforce at the same time or in a short period of time to illness? Bear in mind that all-out illness may not be the only problem, either. If multiple employees have to quarantine themselves, it may result in at least reduced productivity. It’s important to consider these questions with respect to company leadership as well. If multiple C- or VP-level leaders fall ill simultaneously, who will lead the company and how will decisions be made?

Possible risk mitigation tactics.

·   An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “If you don’t have a communicable disease policy, this is a great time to put one in place,” said Catharine Morisset, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Seattle, tells SHRM. If workers are gathering together, implement employee screening procedures, stagger shifts to reduce potential exposure, and practice social distancing within the workplace environment. If possible, implement or continue work-from-home arrangements to limit face-to-face interactions.

·   It may also be time to revise or revisit sick leave policies to ensure that employees who may be infected with COVID-19 don’t feel like they have no choice but to come into work, possibly spreading the illness to others in the process.

·   Other options include limiting services, reducing hours, or even temporarily closing down during periods of high absenteeism.

·   Business continuity planning is also a must. COVID-19 appears to be not only more transmissible than the flu, but also 6 to 10 times deadlier. It’s very serious, and businesses need to be prepared not just for temporary absences but for potential loss of leaders and workers.

Compliance-related risks.
All the same labor laws still apply to the workplace as before the coronavirus appeared, but COVID-19 is complicating many of them. For example, a well-intentioned workplace that wants to protect older workers from possible exposure but ends up treating them differentially could find itself falling afoul of non-discrimination regulations. Similarly, with the U.S. government repeatedly passing emergency legislation and constantly updating guidance from OSHA, the CDC, and the FDA, employers are facing brand new requirements that can be difficult to monitor and follow.

Possible risk mitigation tactics.
Work with your HR partner or vendor to stay on top of the ways in which labor law may be affected by the pandemic. Further, make sure your HR team is scrupulous in documenting any workplace issues that could lead to employment action to protect against accusations of bias, improper termination, etc.

Child-related risks.
Employees with children eked their way through the last few months of the last school year, but if workers must continue to care for and home school their children full-time this fall, it could create an unsustainable situation that pushes many workers to the breaking point. This presents multiple risks to employers, including staffing issues, lost productivity, and more.

Possible risk mitigation tactics.
Review child care benefits to give working parents more support and more options; offer flex work options (not just remote working but flexible hours too); be more generous with productivity requirements for everyone (non-parents will have their own struggles too).

Risks unique to your business.
Because the potential risks here are so wide-ranging and so specific to the organization’s unique circumstances, it’s impossible to create a definitive list. Companies need to spend some time going through a formal risk management process for themselves. For more information, here’s a four-step guide for HR organizations to assess and mitigate their risk:

  1. Identifying HR risks
  2. Creating a risk management plan
  3. Setting up risk monitoring
  4. Spotting unknown risks

CoAdvantage, one of the nation’s largest Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs), helps small to mid-sized companies with HR administration, benefits, payroll, and compliance. To learn more about our ability to create a strategic HR function in your business that drives business growth potential, contact us today.

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