Whether you are a business owner who has successfully kept your business operational during the greatest disaster of the 21st century, or you’re a startup brave enough to launch during these confusing times, it’s important to stay abreast of COVID-19 workplace guidelines.

We know that COVID-19 can cause the business landscape to change very quickly, as we’ve seen with the spread of variants and changing mask mandates. In addition to knowing The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for returning to work, be aware that there are steps you can take to protect your employees and your customers while keeping your workplace running profitably.

What are the latest CDC guidelines for returning to work?

The CDC has by now become a household name. According to recently issued guidelines, the use of masks is recommended indoors if you are in a high-risk area — even for those who are vaccinated — in order to maximize protection from the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

The CDC also recommends that unvaccinated people should continue wearing masks anywhere in public to reduce the risk of transmission. Those with weakened immune systems because of age or an underlying medical condition should continue the use of masks, regardless of where they live.1

What does this mean for your business? One of the most important things you can do to protect your employees and customers is staying abreast of the constantly evolving guidelines because these guidelines will influence how you run your own day-to-day operations.

Further, depending on what line of business you’re in, the CDC may offer additional industry-specific COVID-19 workplace guidelines that apply to you. Construction workers, for example, should limit the number of employees in job-site elevators, trailers, and work vehicles.2 And if you are a hairstylist, barber, cosmetologist, or massage therapist, the CDC recommends wearing a mask at all times, since it is impossible to maintain a distance of six feet while offering customers your services.3

You’ll also want to stay informed about additional guidance that may apply to your business by keeping track of your state COVID-19 workplace guidelines and local COVID-19 workplace guidelines, which can also change frequently based on infection rates in your area.

How to operate your workplace during COVID-19

As a business owner who wants to keep your company operating as smoothly as possible, it’s best to plan ahead for disruptions. One of the most important things you can do is to reexamine your policies for employee leave and telework.

Make sure your leave policies are non-punitive so that sick employees don’t try to return to work prematurely, increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Your policies should also include steps to take if employees need to take care of family members who are ill or their children because of school closures.

When possible, allow telecommuting and flexible hours to minimize the physical distance between employees and others. Communicate your workplace policies and expectations to employees and implement a communications plan so your team knows how to stay in touch with each other as the need arises.

Also, prepare a business continuity plan so you can stay operational in the event of supply chain disruptions, significant employee absenteeism, or impacts to other functions that are critical to your business, such as subcontractor services.

Keep in mind that, as a small business, you may also be eligible for some COVID-19 relief programs.

How to protect your employees’ health

In addition to staying informed and developing backup plans, there are specific things you can do to protect your employees’ health, not to mention your own, against COVID-19:

  • Actively encourage employees to stay home if they are ill. The last thing you want is an infected employee coming to work and spreading the disease to coworkers and customers.
  • Allow telecommuting. For businesses where telecommuting may not be possible, consider implementing flexible work hours to limit the number of employees near one another at any given time.
  • Promote etiquette for handwashing as well as coughing and sneezing. Make sure that you also provide an ample supply of hand sanitizer in areas where employees and customers are likely to need it, such as near cash registers, entryways, and restrooms.
  • Increase the frequency of your environmental cleaning. Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, especially doorknobs and handrails, and clean workstations routinely.
  • Evaluate the need for travel and explore alternatives. If video conferencing is possible, it may be a safer (and more cost-effective) alternative than face-to-face meetings with customers and vendors.

For additional measures you can take to protect your employees, OSHA also offers some helpful guidance on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.

Keep in mind that workers with disabilities who are unable to get vaccinated or cannot wear face coverings may be entitled to reasonable accommodations to protect them from the risk of contracting COVID-19 under the American Disabilities Act.4

And remember, aside from causing widespread physical illness and death, COVID-19 has created job stress, fatigue, anxiety, and other mental health issues for many people. Your employees may be struggling to deal with the stress associated with taking care of a sick family member, fear of becoming infected themselves, or even the death of a loved one. Look into the mental health support services in your area, and let your employees know they are available.

Is COVID-19 covered by workers’ comp?

Whether or not COVID-19 can be covered by workers comp is a complex issue. Workers’ compensation insurance covers the medical expenses for employees who suffer a workplace injury or illness. In most cases, if you have employees on your payroll, it is required by law.

But, just as with the flu or the common cold, it can be difficult to trace exposure to COVID-19 back to the workplace. However, some states have passed legislation mandating that certain workers who contract COVID-19 be covered by their company’s workers comp insurance.5 Because the situation with the pandemic continues to be in a constant state of flux, the safest route for a small business is to carry the appropriate amount of workers’ comp coverage, whether or not your state’s laws require it. That way, you can help to ensure the company and its employees are protected from the financial impact of a workplace-related illness.

How to protect your customers’ health

Many of the safety precautions you implement for your employees will also help to keep your customers safe. For example, routinely clean frequently-touched surfaces and make sure employees who are ill stay home to minimize the risk of transmission to your customers.

Of course, we know by now that mask-wearing will also minimize the risk of transmission, so it may be a good idea to make masks that meet CDC standards available for your employees and customers. Demonstrating to your customers that you are concerned about their health and safety is simply good for business as well.

But can you require your employees to wear a mask even if there is not a local mask mandate? This is a complicated issue but, in most cases, yes, you can require that masks be worn in the workplace.6 However, you may be required to make reasonable accommodations for employees who are unable to wear a face mask.7

What to do when an employee tests positive for COVID-19

If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the most important thing you need to do is make sure they don’t reenter the workplace. The last thing you want is to have them infect other employees or customers. This is one of the reasons why having a policy in place and communicating that policy to your employees is so important.

You’ll also want to make sure infected employees are aware of any medical services that are available to them, and encourage them to contact their medical provider to receive proper care. Remember to safely disinfect the infected employees’ workspace as well as any shared workspaces before any other employees enter them.

If an individual tests positive for COVID-19 but experiences no symptoms, the individual will still need to quarantine for a specific number of days after their positive test. If the infected employee experienced symptoms, their recommended period of isolation extends beyond a specified number of days after the positive test to include 24 hours without a fever (without the use of fever-reducing medications) and their other symptoms of the disease are improving. To determine the recommended length of isolation, visit the CDC’s quarantine and isolation guidelines.

Individuals who experienced serious symptoms of COVID or have weakened immune symptoms may need to isolate themselves for an even longer period of time. These individuals should check with a health provider to find out if they may need to get tested again before being around others.8

Can employers require employees to be vaccinated?

The question of whether an employer can require proof of vaccination is also a complex legal issue. According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, in most cases, federal laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees who physically enter a workplace to be vaccinated.9 However, there are “reasonable accommodation provisions” in governing federal law that you will need to consider. There may also be state and local laws and emerging case law that apply to this situation.

If this is a direction you are interested in pursuing, the Society of Human Resource Management offers a seven-step process that can help you navigate the implementation of a COVID-19 vaccination policy. In some cases, you may want to consult an attorney as the laws and cases appear to provide conflicting information or advice.

If you do not wish to make vaccination a requirement for employment at your company, there are still steps you can take to encourage your employees to make the decision to be vaccinated.

For one, you can give employees paid time off to get vaccinated. If you have fewer than 500 employees, you may be eligible for tax credits under the America Rescue Plan for allowing workers to get vaccinated while still on the company clock.

Education is another measure you can take to encourage workers and their families to be vaccinated. The federal government’s vaccines.gov can help employees locate a vaccination site near where they live or work. Also, the CDC offers a workplace COVID-19 vaccine toolkit that can greatly assist in your employee education efforts.

If your business involves being physically located at customers’ residences or offices, they may require that your employees be vaccinated before entry. In such cases, employees who refuse to be vaccinated would need to be reassigned to non-customer-facing duties.

How your workplace can thrive in “interesting times”

It’s easy to see why the phrase, “May you live in interesting times,” is generally regarded as a curse. These are interesting times for everyone, particularly for business owners and employers who have to balance the safety of their customers and employees with the need to keep their businesses going.

Remember that, while you do your best to keep your employees safe and your business going, Thimble has your back for everyday accidents that happen at work. Our general liability insurance and professional liability insurance plans help to keep your business protected from the financial impact of accidents and mistakes that can come up.

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  1. CDC. When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated. 
  2. CDC. What Construction Workers Need to Know About COVID-19. 
  3. CDC. What Beauty Salons and Barbershop Employees Need to Know About COVID-19. 
  4. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws. 
  5. NCSL. COVID-19: Workers’ Compensation. 
  6. EHS Daily Advisor. UPDATED: Can Employers Mandate the Use of Facemasks, and What If Employees Can’t (or Won’t) Wear Them? 
  7. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws. 
  8. CDC. Quarantine and Isolation. 
  9. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.