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COVID-19 FAQs: Protecting people


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Employee exposure / employee safety

What actions can employers take to protect their employees and visitors, at their job site?

Workers who come into the workplace to do essential activities should be protected as well as possible against potential infection. Potential actions include:

  • Provide ready access to handwashing and hand sanitizer and bleach wipes
  • Turn off "jet" hand dryers in bathrooms and provide paper towels
  • Frequently disinfect shared surfaces. The CDC posts guidelines for Cleaning and Disinfection for Community Facilities.
  • Exercise social distancing maximizing space between workers in line with guidance.
  • Don’t convene any large group meetings; have small meetings in large rooms that allow social distancing. Consider using teleconferencing for meetings if social distancing is not possible in the office.
  • Consider thermal scanning and questioning for risk factors at entrances to the workplace and bar from the workplace those with temperatures above 100.4F, fever, cough, myalgia (muscle pain), known exposure or pending COVID-19 test.
  • Consider exclusion or very strict screening of visitors
  • Offer sick leave and quarantine leave so that workers don’t feel pressured to come to work when they are sick or if they were exposed

If the workplace is open and someone at the workplace was diagnosed or presumed to have COVID-19:

  • They should leave the premises immediately and self-quarantine for 14 days (View CDC guidelines)
  • Follow CDC guidelines for deep cleaning of areas used by the infected employee or visitor
  • Seek guidance and assistance from the local department of health


What are best practices when an employee reports exposure or displays symptoms of the virus?

Best practices with respect to employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are presumed positive include:

  • Employees with a confirmed diagnosis should not go to work until they fully recover.
  • Employees exposed to COVID-19 should not go to work for 14 days from their exposure. They should not be required to provide a doctor's note to be in self-quarantine.
  • Employees who have had contact with or spent more than 15 minutes within six feet of a person who is diagnosed with COVID-19 (or who has presumptive COVID-19 based on symptoms) are at high risk and should not come to work until they have been free of symptoms for 14 days after the last high-risk exposure. (View CDC guidelines)
  • An employer should not reveal the identity of an employee diagnosed with COVID-19. Employers are required to protect the privacy of employees regardless of COVID-19 and should be especially vigilant about privacy concerns during the pandemic.

In any instance of presumed exposure or confirmed infection, employers should arrange for deep cleaning of work areas per CDC guidelines.

View Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) and CDC for further guidance.



Should executives come into the office to show solidarity with employees who are unable to work from home?

Some workers may be more equipped to work remotely. Although this may feel “unfair,” working remotely helps protect others, including front-line, essential workers who must report to the workplace.

An executive who comes in to help with esprit d’ corps may end up endangering colleagues. Organizations should do all they can to maximize physical distance between workers and use all modalities — especially video to stay in close touch.



What are the trends in asking employees to work from home? What are employers doing for employees that cannot work from home?

Willis Towers Watson’s survey fielded February 19 to 26 on implications of COVID-19 for employers showed nearly half of respondents (46%) had increased flexibility for remote work. In North America, 51% of companies reported that 25% or more of their workforce was eligible for remote work prior to the COVID-19 outbreak compared to 70% of companies after the outbreak. For employees that cannot work from home:

  • 22% of North America companies surveyed reported obtaining supplies of masks or other personal protective equipment
  • 25% reported disinfecting worksites
  • 44% increased access to hand sanitizers
  • 56% enhanced communication about preventing the spread of respiratory disease

And, in a survey of premium pay practices, fielded March 23 to 24, 8% of employers responded that they are providing premium pay for employees that need to be physically present, with 8% more planning to do so.


Company policies – travel, testing, compensation, communication

What are you seeing from employers surrounding travel policies?

We are encouraging our clients to continue monitoring the spread of the virus, and to provide timely updates to employees regarding travel restrictions or bans. This situation is fluid as a growing number of countries are considering or have enacted travel restrictions. It is important to have policies that address both domestic and international travel.

Best practices include:

  • Mandatory 14-day stay-at-home/self-isolation period for any employee who has travelled for any reason, including personal trips or who has COVID-19 exposure through family members or relationships.
  • Restrict all international travel (most employers have a tentative end date, which is subject to change). Any corporate travel must be approved. (Note: the U.S. Government has advised all U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel at this time.)
  • Restrict all domestic travel (most employers have a tentative end date, which is subject to change), with possibly exceptions for essential and approved travel.
  • Remind employees to take extra precautions when traveling on any public transportation.
  • Check the CDC, State Department and other U.S. Government websites for updates and additional recommendations.

Employers should contact their insurance representative for specific information on their plans, specific to their globally mobile population. The following aspects of those plans should be reviewed to ensure there is appropriate coverage in place:

  • Business Travel Accident (BTA) or Personal Accident (PA) plans: If the plan covers emergency out-of-country medical expenses, be sure to understand if COVID-19 claims will be covered like other illness. Typically, these plans do not include a benefit for death by natural causes. As Accidental Death coverage that is typical in BTA/PA plans will not cover death due to illness, it is unlikely that a COVID-19 related death would be covered. However, many plans include a benefit for the repatriation of mortal remains.
  • Business Travel Medical (BTM) plans: Understand whether COVID-19 claims will be covered “same as any other illness” for urgent and emergency healthcare. Many BTM plans include a repatriation of mortal remains benefit.
  • Expatriate (Expat) Healthcare plans: Many expatriate healthcare insurers have confirmed that COVID-19 health claims will be covered “same as any other illness.” If an employer has not received any information from their expat insurer, they should confirm if COVID-19 will be covered. Also, many expat health plans also provide Employee Assistance Program (EAP) access and telehealth services to the members (employees and covered dependents). We recommend that employers work with their insurers to send out communications on these services right away.
  • Expatriate Life plans: Most, but not all, expatriate life insurers will cover a COVID-19 death claim. Some policies may have exclusions, so we recommend that employers check to ensure coverage is in place.

What are the trends in pay and compensation practices?

Willis Towers Watson’s recent survey (fielded March 16 to 17) collected answers from 805 respondents on COVID-19 implications for hourly employees, specifically, and addresses many of these questions. Results are summarized in this blog.


Could you provide guidance on and templates for effective communication, including sample policies like travel bans?

Willis Towers Watson’s Communication and Change Management team is rapidly developing COVID-19 communication templates that are customizable to meet employer needs, protocols and guidelines. Sample materials include:

  • Bulletins
  • eCards
  • Tip sheets

Another offering is a COVID-19-focused microsite that can serve as the central location for all employee communications about the crisis. In addition to the technology, Willis Towers Watson can provide a starting point for content and help customize it with employer-specific branding and messages. The microsite can be deployed simply and quickly. These consulting services are available for a fee. Learn more.


Are companies using thermal scanners at their offices? Is that considered a “medical examination?”

Some companies are using thermal scanners at their entrances. If the scanner does not touch the employee, this is not considered a medical examination. However, companies should be aware that employees who are asymptomatic may still be able to spread the virus so thermal scanners can miss potentially infectious employees.

Companies seeking to screen out workers most likely to transmit COVID-19 should not rely exclusively on thermal scanning and should query employees about symptoms, exposure and travel, too.


How are employers addressing the cost of COVID-19 care for employees?

Some employers are considering waiving cost of care for COVID-19, as well as the cost of testing. Employers should check with counsel to be sure such a plan will not threaten the tax-advantaged status of Health Savings Accounts associated with High Deductible Health Plans.

Some employers also are choosing to waive the cost of telemedicine during this pandemic to encourage virtual visits. Employers should check with counsel to be sure such a plan will not threaten the tax-advantaged status of Health Savings Accounts associated with High Deductible Health Plans.


What adjustments are companies making to their paid time off (PTO) policies?

Some employers are allowing employees to utilize their PTO or vacation during unpaid leave. Many employers are addressing COVID -19 as a temporary payroll practice and are mirroring the 80 hours of paid leave without changing their underlying PTO or vacation/sick policy. Some employers are creating an emergency/crisis leave policy outside of PTO that may have a pay component.

Be aware, however, the expansion of current PTO or vacation accruals or characterization of additional time as PTO could increase overall year end liabilities, set a precedent and increase termination payouts.


Is there software available for electronic employee questionnaires?

Willis Towers Watson offers targeted pulse surveys, which are delivered through Willis Towers Watson Employee Engagement Software. Clients can either purchase the software to conduct surveys on their own, or our Employee Insights team can administer the survey.

The Willis Towers Watson survey platform enables mobile-first surveys to reach all employees, regardless of their current working situation, and supports 73 languages. It provides live tracking of returns and advanced comments analysis.

We have recently added a survey of 20 items specific to COVID-19 based on our experience surveying employees in China and around the world during these difficult times. It covers critical topics on the minds of employees: work arrangements, wellbeing, support, business focus, policies and impact, along with an opportunity to provide open comments. It is designed to be run regularly, even weekly, to gauge trends. The survey is currently available in English and will be made available in 17 languages over time.


Notification

What are the requirements and recommendations for notifying employees, local health authorities and general public about an employee with COVID-19?

If an employer learns that an employee has tested positive for the COVID-19, it should immediately advise its workforce and any impacted customers, clients or patients without disclosing any identifying information about the employee.

Additionally, in the event the coronavirus impacts an employer’s workforce, the company should immediately contact its local public health agency to determine the appropriate course of action, including:

  • Quarantines
  • A facility shut-down
  • Appropriate remediation measures (e.g., cleaning of contaminated spaces)

Learn more: Employment Law Questions Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic


Return to work

What are best practices around return to work policies?

The CDC provides sensible guidance in respect of discontinuing home isolation for healthcare professionals. While the needs for onsite employees will vary by industry, this general guidance is useful as organizations consider setting policy. View CDC guidelines on this.

From the CDC:
"Employers should not require a positive COVID-19 test result or a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work. Healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner."



What are best practices when considering return to work?

For employers who are considering letting employees return to work:

  1. Employers should follow recommendations, guidelines and regulations of local, state and federal public health and law enforcement officials.
  2. Work that can be done remotely should continue to be done remotely.
    • Employers should make special efforts to support remote work for those employees at highest risk for COVID-19 complications.
    • Those who can work remotely shouldn’t come to the workplace to “show solidarity” with front-line workers, as this increases everyone’s risk.
  3. Workers who come in to the workplace to do essential activities should be protected against potential infection. Potential actions include:
    • Ready access to handwashing and hand sanitizer and bleach wipes
    • Turn off "jet" hand dryers in bathrooms and provide paper towels
    • Frequent disinfection of shared surfaces. (View CDC guidelines)
    • Ability to do social distancing - for instance, leave more room between workers
    • Don’t convene any large group meetings; have small meetings in large rooms that allow social distancing. Consider using teleconferencing for meetings if social distancing is not possible in the office.
    • Consider thermal scanning and questioning for risk factors at entrance of workplace with exclusion of those with temperature above 100.4F, fever, cough, myalgias (muscle pain), known exposure or pending COVID-19 test.
    • Consider exclusion or very strict screening of visitors
    • Offer sick leave and quarantine leave so that workers don’t feel pressured to come in when they are sick or if they were exposed
  4. If the workplace is opened and someone at the workplace has diagnosed or presumptive COVID:
    • They should leave the premises immediately. (View CDC guidelines)
    • Those with exposure to this person (Over 15 minutes less than six feet away) should leave the workplace and self-quarantine for 14 days from the last date of exposure)
    • Follow CDC guidelines for deep cleaning of areas used by the infected employee or visitor
    • The local department of health can provide assistance, although in many instances they are currently overwhelmed
  5. Companies should not make COVID-19 testing a requirement for leave from work, return to work or determination of when to exclude exposed workers from the workplace. This testing is likely to continue to be limited for many weeks if not longer. Any employee or visitor with symptoms of COVID-19 should be treated as having the disease.
  6. Companies should remove any requirement for doctor’s notes for leave or return to work – these can lead to unnecessary exposures and in many locations the medical system will not have any spare capacity. (View CDC guidelines)

Disability and FMLA

How are disability and FMLA impacted?

Disability policies will typically pay for disabilities associated with an illness, including COVID-19. However, disability carriers generally will not approve quarantine under the definition of disability unless there is specific language that the employee poses a health risk due to a national health emergency. Employers with self-insured disability policies can request that their disability carrier approve and pay under the short-term disability (STD) policy for quarantined individuals.

Employees who are infected by the virus or need to take care of a covered ill family member would be eligible for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if they meet the standard requirements. An employee who is quarantined due to exposure, high risk prevention or choosing to self-quarantine would not qualify under FMLA which is unpaid, job protected leave for their own or family member’s serious health condition.

Note this is different than the new temporary leave provision under the Family and Medical Leave – Paid Public Health Emergency Leave. The new provision would apply to employers with 500 or fewer employees and only require 30 days of employment and provides paid leave.


Recovery

How can organizations start addressing the financial disruption from a programmatic perspective (e.g. 401(k), pension plan, cash flow)?

  1. Start by assessing the effect of the recent economic environment on the balance sheet, profit and loss estimates and outlook for near-term cash; and the may be effects on debt covenants or rating analysts' outlook.
  2. Outline possible responses and priorities to address pending financial concerns. If cash flow is a particular focus, consider options available to defer defined benefit cash funding or reducing or suspending company contributions to the defined contribution (DC) plan (where possible). Be aware that there may be other benefit programs (like healthcare) which may have higher cash flow spending.
  3. Be mindful that the financial disruption also is impacting your employees' retirement planning as well. Consider the changes that may be made to your DC plan to allow for the flexibility to access funds in an emergency and revisit key messages around saving and investment choices in light of the current environment.

Note: Clients should contact their accounting or tax professional for specific information.