April 27, 2020

A Motto for Employers: Cool Head, Warm Heart, Clean Hands

By: Andrew Lenderman   Comments: 0

Washington employers should acknowledge that their workforce faces unusual challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, from caring for relatives to anxiety about the economy. But Washington's labor and employment laws are still in effect, and employers and employees need to adjust.

These are just a few highlights from AWB's Monday webinar that featured some of the state's leading employment, small business and human resource experts.

Attorney Timothy J. O'Connell, a partner at Stoel Rives, addressed two big questions that have been raised by several Washington employers in recent weeks.

The first relates to work location.

"If it's necessary for you in running your business, to have a remote workforce, are you entitled to say that? And the bottom line is that you're allowed to place it as a condition of employment where your employees will work. And if that's working at home, you're entitled to do that," O'Connell said. He added later: "You have as the employer the authority to tell your employee where to work."

This of course assumes the employer can meet the social distancing and other safety requirements laid out by state officials. And, Gov. Jay Inslee's recent executive order protects high-risk workers, such as those over 65 and with certain medical conditions.

The second question many employers have been asking relates to workers who may not want to return to the office because they're concerned about becoming sick.

"When an employee refuses to return to work when recalled, then that employee has voluntarily separated from employment," O'Connell said. That should be reported to the state Employment Security Department, he added.

In general, "the normal rules about your workplace are still going to apply, and you need to make sure that your employees are aware of that," he said.

Jennifer Dye from the Washington Small Business Development Center offered tips on how to manage a virtual workforce. Some firms are experienced in this already, but many across the country are learning as they go.

Dye emphasized connection, communication and coping. Connection refers to how will you be in contact, communication refers to frequency and duration, and coping refers to using managerial soft skills.

"We have to be a little bit more in touch than we typically would," she said. Setting the day's agenda needs to continue when working virtually, she said. And although there are many relatively new tools to connect, from applications to video conferencing, it's important that all employees have access to them.

And the basics still apply as it relates to establishing clear expectations and holding employees accountable for them, she said. The center offers free advising and resources to small businesses throughout the year. Click here to learn more.

Many of those suddenly working for extended periods of time may miss their office chair and other equipment that's both convenient and designed to reduce fatigue and injury. Rick Goggins of the state Department of Labor & Industries emphasized the importance of creating a safe home work environment. Avoid tangled cords, broken chairs and other hazards.

"You really don't want go get a sudden injury at home," Goggins said. "…I think none of us really want to be in urgent care or the emergency room right now, if ever."

Goggins also provided useful handouts for working at home. Click here and here to learn more.

Britt Provost, a human resources executive from Accolade, Inc., called the current environment an in-between time for many, and said we're still in crisis. It's not a normal work-from-home experience, Provost said.

"This in-between time is weird, because again, we're not working from home, we're working in a pandemic," she said.

She acknowledged many concerns that people may have, from anxiety about the economy, to isolation, to stages of grief about what they can and can't do, to concerns for family members.

"Mental health is becoming a very important area for us," she said. "That first aid of how are we taking care of our people right in this moment."

Provost also shared a motto as her employer navigates uncertain times: "Cool head, warm heart, clean hands."

AWB's next webinar is scheduled for Wednesday, April 29 at 10:30 a.m. U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Jaime Herrera Beutler will talk about recent efforts to help small businesses impacted by the pandemic. Click here to register.

The Employer Resources webinar begins again on Monday at 10 a.m. Click here to register.

For an video version of today's webinar, please click the play button below.

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