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Curated Business Tips from the Wall Street Journal Coronavirus Special Edition

March 23, 2020 Jeff Bradford

woman in crisis at deskBelow is information to help businesses operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, curated and condensed from by the Bradford Group from the Wall Street Journal’s Coronavirus Special Edition:

What employers can and can’t do

 

Personal travel

Can employers cancel employees’ vacation time and make them work instead?

In most workplaces, yes. Vacation time isn’t guaranteed under federal law. The exception is if an employee is covered by a union contract or specific employment agreement that includes certain time-off protections.

Can employers require employees to cancel their personal travel plans.

No. Employers can’t dictate how employees spend their personal time.

Do employers have to pay for an employee’s canceled trip?

Legally employers aren’t required to pay unless an employment contract specifically calls for it.

 

Working remotely

Do employees have the right to work from home?

Employers generally don’t have an obligation to allow telecommuting. An exception is an employee who qualifies under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to work remotely to accommodate a disability. Another might be if the government is ordering a quarantine. Then an employer could have more of a burden to allow remote work.

Can employers require employees to work from home?

Yes. Employers are within their rights to ask employees to work remotely, as long as they’re not applying a policy in a way that could be deemed discriminatory.

Aside from ordering them to work from home, can employers otherwise restrict employees movements?

No. That said, an employer can offer recommendations to employees on how much to venture from home. Employers can educate and encourage, but they can’t control.

 

On the job

If an employee’s job requires a lot of close contact with many customers, can they refuse to perform their job because of the coronavirus outbreak?

Workers are protected from retaliation from an employer if they refuse to take on what they consider an unsafe work assignment. It becomes less straightforward, though, if a “reasonable” employee would otherwise deem the assignment safe.

Can employers require employees to go on business trips?

Employers can require employees to go on a business trip. However, making such an ultimatum is going to spread like wildfire through your organization. It could be a strategic mistake.

It could also be a legal mistake. In a case in Connecticut, the court indicated it could be illegal to require a worker to travel somewhere unsafe.

Can an employer take an employee’s temperature at work?

Measuring an employee’s temperature is usually beyond the bounds of what an employer can do or require. But in an especially severe or widespread influenza outbreak, such a check is permissible. That rule is likely to apply to a coronavirus epidemic.

But even if it’s legal to take an employee’s temperature, many lawyers and health experts don’t think it’s useful. Maybe the employee simply has the flu. And many people with the coronavirus have had no fever.

What if an employee ends up catching Covid-19 at work? Is the employer liable?

Unlikely — because it’s usually hard to prove. It could be tough to determine exactly where someone contracted the virus, making it difficult to hold an employer responsible for medical costs.

 

Privacy

If an employer knows an employee contracted the virus, is the employer required to inform the infected employee’s co-workers?

Generally, yes. Companies have an obligation to warn those who may have come in contact with someone diagnosed with Covid-19.

But it’s not recommended that a company would identify the employee in question by name. That could violate confidentiality requirements under the ADA. Instead, employers might note that a staffer on a certain floor or part of the building contracted the virus.

If employees come down with Covid-19, do they have to tell the employer? Can’t they just say they need to take sick time and leave it at that?

There may not be a legal requirement, but there is an ethical one.

However, if the employee works remotely and has had no direct contact with colleagues, clients or other people through their job, though, such a disclosure may not be necessary

 

Re-evaluating sick time policies

 

sick time chartThe incubation period for confirmed cases of coronavirus can be up to 14 days, a significant stretch of time to take off from work. Many jobs offer no paid sick leave at all. That means many workers may feel they have no choice but to come to work even when they are ill.

 

Adjusting policies

In 2019, more than 33 million U.S. workers had no access to sick leave. Many of them are food and cleaning staff who are more likely to get infected or be a vector for disease — and don’t have the option of working from home.

Employees who went to work while sick with H1N1, also known as the swine flu, caused the infection of as many as seven million co-workers in 2009.

As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies, companies are rolling out special sick-time benefits to their workers, who number in the millions.

  • Trader Joe’s encouraged workers to stay home if they are sick, saying those days wouldn’t come out of employees’ paid sick-day bank. The move isn’t a permanent change to policy, the company says.
  • Walmart Inc. says it is waiving its attendance policy through the end of April, telling workers who are sick or feel uncomfortable coming to work to stay home using their paid time off. Any employees required to quarantine, either by Walmart or a government agency, will receive up to two weeks of pay. If a Walmart associate tests positive for coronavirus, that person will receive up to two weeks of pay. After that, if the employee can’t work, that person may receive pay for up to 26 weeks, the company says.
  • Darden, the Florida company that runs Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, says its 180,000 hourly workers would accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. It is granting workers a bank of paid leave based on their most recent 26 weeks worked, and the benefit can be used immediately.

 

paid sick days chartDifferent tiers

Paid sick time breaks down along wage lines. Among workers with salaries that put them in the top 10% of earners, 93% have paid sick days. For people who are in the bottom 10% of earners, that falls to 30%.

Even among workers with paid sick time, sick policies can vary significantly.

  • 4% of U.S. private-sector workers with paid sick time have an unlimited number of days to use.
  • 32% have days that can be used for any purpose, which can mean making the choice between taking a sick day or going on vacation.
  • 65% are granted a fixed number of sick days a year.

And, with many white-collar workers, time off can vary based on an employee’s relationship with a manager.

 

How to work from home: a checklist of the essentials

 

  • Make sure you have all the tools you need: the right laptops, network access, passcodes and instructions for remote login.
  • Minimize distractions and noises from others in your household. Separate your workspace from your personal space as much as possible. Use a pair of noise-canceling headphones to block out sounds. On conference calls, mute your microphone when you aren’t speaking. When videoconferencing, be mindful of what the camera is picking up behind you.
  • Use digital collaboration tools to communicate with colleagues. Schedule group meetings by videoconference and set up group chats via programs like Slack or Microsoft Teams. If email is leading to a misunderstanding, pick up the phone and have a conversation.
  • Talk with your manager about child-care challenges. If you’re asked to work from home and your children’s school or day-care shuts down, that might affect your ability to do remote work during normal business hours. In some cases, children may be old enough to fend for themselves. But younger children will need more attention. One possibility might be to set up shifts at home, where one parent works remotely and the other parent cares for the child, and then they switch.
  • Take steps to improve your internet speed. You may encounter slowdowns during periods of heavy use, like when you’re trying to work from home while your children are watching videos or playing games. Switch to Ethernet if you can. If not, move as close as possible to your Wi-Fi router.
  • Fight the feeling of isolation. While you want to minimize distraction from your family members or roommates, you also want to avoid feeling like you are completely alone all day. Maintaining social connection is tricky while trying to create social distance to stave off the virus. But there are ways to maintain your mental health: Call people on the phone or videochat, and break up the day with some exercise. Some employers have also begun offering online resilience training to address the challenges of working from home during the outbreak.

 

How to travel during the coronavirus pandemic

 

Packing

  • Take extra supplies of any medications in case your travel gets disrupted and you can’t get home or end up getting quarantined.
  • Take lots of hand sanitizer, some in travel-size bottles and some in your checked luggage or TSA liquids bag.
  • Take disinfecting wipes, cold medicine, a thermometer and health-insurance documentation in case you get sick, and extra work, reading and entertainment in case you get delayed.

 

At the airport

  • Sanitize or wash hands immediately after going through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint, and certainly before you touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Be wary of the many risks of exposure at the checkpoint. Airline officials have pointed out that TSA isn’t cleaning its checkpoints nearly as aggressively as airlines are cleansing airplanes. TSA checkpoints are public spaces where people are in close quarters and sharing surfaces.
  • Three TSA screeners working at Mineta San Jose International Airport in California have tested positive for Covid-19, the disease that results from the new coronavirus.
  • The TSA has set up a website with information about its response to the coronavirus.

 

On the airplane

  • Open the air vent and aim it in front of your face. Air on planes is zoned and runs through hospital-grade filters that capture 99.9% of contaminants, including viruses. It may be the cleanest air you get all day.
  • Wipe down surfaces like tray tables and arm rests to disinfect. Airlines have stepped up cleaning of airplanes, but much of it occurs overnight. That doesn’t protect you from the person on the previous flight if the plane you are boarding has just landed.
  • Wash or sanitize hands after touching public surfaces like bathroom doorknobs, sink handles and overhead-bin latches.
  • Consider a window seat. There is some research showing that passengers in window seats stay put more than people in aisle seats, and so are exposed to fewer people. Also, there’s a risk of someone infected walking down the aisle and sneezing or coughing on the person in the aisle seat.
  • Remember, medical studies show the hot zone on an airplane is two seats around you in any direction. If someone near you is coughing or sneezing, move — there should be plenty of empty seats.

 

At the hotel and elsewhere

  • Wash hands with soap for at least 20 seconds (sing the alphabet song to make sure you wash long enough).
  • Use hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

 

What if I have tickets but don’t want to travel?

  • If you bought your ticket before March and planned to travel in March or April, most big airlines will waive cancellation or change fees. Delta, United and American began doing this March 9. In most cases, you’ll get a voucher good toward future travel. Pay close attention to when the voucher expires. It may be one year from when you bought the ticket, which by now may not be much time.
  • If you bought a ticket before March and plan to travel in May or later, most airlines have not yet issued waivers from fees. Sit tight. There will be time to cancel, unless you face other deadlines for cruises or hotel bookings. If the pandemic continues for several months, waivers will be coming. If it subsides, you may well feel safe traveling this summer.
  • If you buy a ticket now, almost all airlines are selling tickets without change fees or cancellation penalties. (Southwest does all the time, which gives you the most flexibility.) If you change your mind, you likely won’t get a refund, just a voucher.

 

Does travel insurance cover you?

  • Not for coronavirus cancellations. At this point, the threat is well-known, so it is not insurable. Besides, most policies exclude pandemic, and the World Health Organization has officially made that classification.
  • The one insurance product that experts say still offers some coverage is Cancel for Any Reason insurance. You have to buy it within a week or two of your first payment on a trip. It costs more and it typically covers only 60% to 70% of your losses.

 

How can I get a refund on a nonrefundable ticket?

  • If an airline cancels your flight (and you still have a ticket for it), the airline has to refund what you paid. It’s simple: The airline isn’t delivering the service you bought.
  • If an airline changes its schedule and you don’t want the new flights, you will be entitled to a refund in most cases. At American, for example, a schedule change of 61 minutes or more gives you the option to get a refund. (Alternatively, you can choose to accept the new flights offered, of course.) At United, rules are changing: United has gone from a two-hour threshold to now saying that the schedule has to be “significantly” different to get a refund.

 

How to boost your immune system

  • Keep your stress levels down. The stress hormone cortisol turns off cells in your immune system. Engage in activities that you find relaxing, such as meditation.
  • Exercise. Low- and moderate-intensity exercise naturally lowers cortisol levels and helps with immune-system function ­– 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day is recommended. Be careful not to over-exercise because it can weaken your immune system.
  • Get adequate sleep.For adults, that means getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Children should get more, depending on their age.
  • Make sure your vaccines are up-to-date, especially the flu vaccine.
  • Avoid antibiotics unless you must take them because they deplete the good bacteria in the system, leaving you more vulnerable to other infections.
  • Stop smoking or vaping. Smokers and those with respiratory disease have a higher rate of serious illness and complications from coronavirus.
  • Watch your diet. Stick to a healthful, balanced diet filled with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables to ensure you’re getting enough zinc and vitamin D and other important vitamins and minerals. Because vitamin D deficiency is relatively common, experts do recommend supplementation if levels are low.
    • Eat plenty of plain yogurt every day. It helps to support the good bacteria that live in your body, which help to fight bad bacteria or viruses.
    • Foods that can help support the microbiome include garlic, onion, ginger, sauerkraut and fermented foods.
    • Minimize foods with sugar and trans fats, which aren’t as nutrient-dense.
    • Your immune system needs fuel, so avoid ultra-low carbohydrate diets.
    • Drink lots of water and reduce alcohol consumption, which can disrupt your sleep.

Read our full curation of this special section HERE.

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