April 20, 2020

Communicate often, be flexible with employees and learn about new benefits, employment experts say (w/video)

By: Andrew Lenderman   Comments: 0

As Washington employers attempt to adjust to a new reality in this COVID-19 era, legal experts said they should communicate and be up front with their employees, be flexible with their concerns and take advantage of new state and federal benefits that may help during the coronavirus pandemic.

These are a few of the takeaways from AWB's Monday webinar featuring top employment lawyers and state officials.

Many of the questions employers raised during the webinar were focused on what's next as AWB, state officials and others discuss the possibility of safely and gradually reopening parts of the economy.

For example: What liability does a business have if an employee is infected at work?

"The short answer is we don't yet know," said Laura Morse, an attorney at Jensen Morse Baker. “But if the standard that has always applied, which is deliberate intention, continues to apply, likely liability will be limited."

Employers and employees also have more options now in terms of paid sick leave, taking care of children, tax credits and more, thanks to the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Attorney Christine Thelen of Lane Powell showed a presentation that summarizes this so-called second federal stimulus, which has been largely overshadowed by more recent legislation. Basically, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19, the U.S. Department of Labor reports.

At the state level, Scott Michael, legal services coordination manager for the state Employment Security Department, noted that business owners, self-employed people and independent contractors may be eligible for unemployment benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. To qualify, people have to show they are not working due to COVID-19. Applicants will need to provide their 2019 net income. Visit www.esd.wa.gov to apply and learn more.

The state's Paid Family and Medical Leave program could also prove useful for those who are ill.

"If you don’t actually have the virus we cannot help you with paid family and medical leave," Michael said of the state program. Visit www.paidleave.wa.gov to learn more.

There were also many questions Monday about how to handle employees that may not be sick but are concerned about coming to work and being exposed.

"As a general rule, we've encouraged businesses to try and have people agree to work, just because from an employee relations perspective…it's an emotionally challenging time to be operating in this space," Thelen said. "We've done a lot in terms of communicating what the company is doing to protect employees who are working as a way to help encourage folks."

But some people may be at risk, or have a family member at risk, and not have a doctor's note to give them access to the protected leave, she said. They may want to stay home for that reason.

"To the extent that employers can allow for that I think it's important that they try and do so," she said.

It's better for morale and better for everyone to try to work with certain employees that are concerned about coming to work, said attorney Britenae Pierce of Ryan, Swanson and Cleveland.

"Although ultimately, if the world is opened back up, work is running again, people can be disciplined for not showing up," she said.

Many state and federal laws and rules have changed since the pandemic began. Morse noted that human resources managers may be experts about their company's benefit plan, but not rules at the state Employment Security Department, for example. So, send employees to the source.

"The only thing worse than keeping employees in the dark is giving them bad information," Morse said.

Thelen emphasized the need to be up front with employees.

"Help them understand what you're doing and how you're thinking about things so that they don’t feel blindsided by decisions that you may have to make," she said.

AWB's next webinar is scheduled for Monday, April 27. The subject is employment law and managing a virtual workforce. Click here to register.