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Employers should come up with a consistent and effective plan for a possible epidemic

WILL MANUEL

By BECKY GILLETTE

Confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have moved closer geographically to Mississippi with the recent announcement of cases in Tennessee and Georgia. Thirty states had reported cases of COVID-19 as of March 9 with a total of 500 cases.

While some health officials hope that the virus will die out with warmer weather, which usually happens with coronaviruses, employers need to be prepared to handle issues that are likely to come up.

“Most of what has been talked about in the press is how to keep yourself from getting it,” said William Manuel, a labor and employment partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP, Jackson. “News stories about the spread of an infectious disease can affect a workforce in many different ways. Employers should come up with a consistent and effective plan for a possible epidemic.”

» READ MORE: COVID-19 not yet impacting visitation and conventions on Coast and Jackson

Manuel expects employers will have to deal with the issue in a number of ways. Hero employees may want to show up for work even if they are very ill. That behavior known as presenteeism can be a real problem because sick workers could end up infecting the entire workforce, as well as any customers the workers come in contact with.

“Tell sick employees to stay home and the keep rest of the workforce healthy,” Manuel said. “To do that, you may have to be more flexible with sick leave policies. Obviously, be consistent. Don’t give one employee a break where you wouldn’t give another one the same break.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the “Chicken Little” workers who are healthy, but afraid to come to work. Or, they might just use it as an opportunity to take some time off. Manuel advises employers require proof that an employee is entitled to sick leave.

“Every employer has employees who might take advantage of it,” Manuel said. “This is not a get-out-of-work free card for employees. If they are not sick or taking care of sick family members, they shouldn’t just be able to stay home. They can take paid time off, but they shouldn’t be able to shut down the business because they are afraid of getting sick.”

If illnesses become widespread, it could have a dramatic impact on staffing. Manuel suggests if that happens, employers consider whether or not to cut extra shifts and\or pay overtime.

“If 70 percent of employees can’t come for work, you will have to shut down certain parts of operation,” Manuel said. “Communicate decisions to everyone. It is important all managers know how to handle it. It is vital to have a plan rather than dealing with a situation you didn’t think of on the front end. It causes confusion and angst among employees if they think you don’t care about their safety.”

There are some studies indicating an estimated 78 percent of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck. So, workers without sick leave days might feel they can’t afford to stay home sick. Manuel said employers may be able to do things like sick leave banking where healthy employees donate sick leave to employees who are ill.

The Family Medical Leave Act has regulations about which employees can take off work to care for family members who are sick. If employees have had three consecutive days of treatment for flu, they qualify for leave under FMLA if they have been an employee for a full year.

California has declared a state of emergency advising citizens to avoid crowds of more than ten.

“For some people’s jobs, that is impossible,” Manuel said. “And the way this information is coming out is difficult to manage. How are we going to know if this hits Mississippi? The symptoms so similar to regular flu that it is hard to distinguish from run-of-the mill flu.”

 

Darrin Williams (right) helps moderate the Clinton Foundation Economic Inclusion and Growth: The Way Forward – Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

 

Darrin Williams, CEO of Southern Bancorp, Inc., said that first and foremost, they’re encouraging their employees and customers alike to be calm and stay informed, and get information from trusted sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Darrin Williams, Gov. Hutchinson, and State Sen. Jonathan Dismang at the bill signing for legislation Southern Bancorp supported that adds a new direct deposit line to Arkansas’ state tax refund forms in an effort to increase savings opportunities.

“Taking common sense approaches such as washing hands often, avoiding sick friends and families, and staying home when sick are key components of our approach,” Williams said. “For those who do find themselves in a situation where they are either sick or could be sick and have to miss work, communication is key. Informing supervisors and co-workers immediately so that schedules and workloads can be adjusted will be important to ensuring that operations are disrupted as little as possible. On the management side, it’s also important that policies and procedures are in place and ready to go in the case of major disruptions.”

Southern Bancorp Bank, which focuses on underserved communities, operates with 16 branches in 15 different cities in Mississippi.

Williams said for individuals who find themselves unable to work and facing questions about loan payments, they encourage communication. If you’re unable to make a payment on time because of illness, the bank wants customers to contact them because, in some instances, the bank can work with them and provide flexibility to help them through this period.

“For those who aren’t sick, we’d encourage them to plan ahead,” Williams said. “If you don’t have emergency savings set aside, now is the time to do so. According to a Federal Reserve survey, almost 40 percent of American adults would not be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit card charge that they could quickly pay off. This is why we actively encourage our customers and employees to build an emergency savings fund. For many Americans, tax refunds are the largest lump sum payment they’ll receive all year, so this is a timely opportunity to put a little aside for an emergency, be it the coronavirus, the flu, or some other emergency.”

Both the business and healthcare communities are facing unprecedented challenges. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that severe and mounting shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers is putting lives at risk. https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/03-03-2020-shortage-of-personal-protective-equipment-endangering-health-workers-worldwide

There has been a shortage of test kits in the U.S. Rather than using the test kit approved by WHO, CDC devised its own test kits that proved to be faulty. The CDC applied to the FDA for emergency approval of the new test kits on Feb. 2. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, speaking at a national press teleconference March 3, (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/t0212-cdc-telebriefing-transcript.html), said the FDA is moving quickly to get those test kits out to commercial test manufacturers.

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About Becky Gillette