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BPM’s Jill Pappenheimer Featured in Food Engineering Magazine

How to navigate COVID-19-related HR challenges in the food industry 05.22.20

This article originally published on May 21, 2020 in Food Engineering Magazine.

To say COVID-19 has changed the landscape of the food industry would be an understatement. As organizations of all sizes navigate either increased demand or dramatic decline, business leaders are doing their best to maintain normalcy and plan quicker than ever before. While changes seem to be taking place daily, one thing that remains the same is the importance of managing and supporting your people through compassion, compliance and accountability. Our HR Consulting professionals answered some of the many questions food industry leaders are asking about how to reinforce those key principles, and other important HR issues, during the global pandemic.

Compassion

How can I appropriately support employees emotionally during COVID-19?

To navigate the ever-changing landscape this pandemic presents for our industry, it is important to stay aware of the impact on employees, due to illness, reduced hours or loss of temporary employment. Employees are facing increased emotions, heightened anxiety, fear, added stress from children at home, and isolationism. Organizations should consider the very real impact these emotions have on the ability for people to stay healthy, be present and productive. At this critical time, employees will benefit from strong guidance and leadership from their CEOs.

Compliance

How can I keep employees from burning out?

Managers should ensure employees are taking their breaks and meal periods. Additionally, employers may want to encourage and even require the use of vacation/paid time off (PTO).  It is also important to verify there are no legal requirements or restrictions that affect timing or use, such as emergency paid sick time (FFCRA). If the organization is in a position to allow for employees to take time off, flexible scheduling options may be an attractive option. Consider instituting sleep-in days and/or leave early days. Corresponding policies are key, for consistency sake.  

Managers should also show appreciation by understanding what motivates their employees. Some employees may appreciate a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant, while others are looking for a simple thank you card or acknowledgement. Understanding employee motivation goes a long way.

When employees are working long hours, it is important that management recognizes and acknowledge their hard work. Regular, consistent communication and feedback is key.

How do I account for a buildup of PTO?

Organizations can manage large balances of vacation time or PTO by offering to pay out PTO to bring the balances down. Organizations may also mandate employees use their PTO/vacation. For example, you may want to consider staggering mandated PTO for certain days of the week or for a complete week at a time. Another example could be for summer months, employees must take one day of PTO per week for the months of July and August.

What are the wage and hour issues with overtime?

Organizations need to ensure they have a system to record all time worked. For example, overtime in California is paid at one and one-half times their regular rate for any hours worked over eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. If an employee works over 12 hours in a day, they are paid double time. In addition, employees are eligible for overtime for any work performed on the seventh consecutive day.

Employers are allowed to mandate overtime. In California, employees are guaranteed a day of rest in every work week. An employer may allow an employee to independently choose to not take a day of rest as long as the employee is apprised of their right to take a day of rest.

What do we do if we have employees who do not feel safe returning to work? Can we replace them? What other options do we have?

It is recommended you use caution when deciding to replace an employee who refuses to work due to concerns around COVID-19. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Recalled employees may have a right to job-protected leave under a city ordinance, state law, or the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) for employers under 500 employees.
  • Employees who are in a high-risk category–either because they are immunocompromised or have an underlying condition–may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or state law if their situation does not qualify them for leave under the FFCRA (or if they have run out of that leave). It would be a reasonable accommodation under the circumstances to allow the employee to work from home, or if working from home is not possible, to take an unpaid leave.
  • Employees who live with someone who is high risk are not entitled to a reasonable accommodation under federal law, but it is strongly recommended allowing them to work from home, if possible, or take an unpaid leave, if requested. Otherwise, they may decide to quit and file for unemployment insurance. If you want to keep them as an employee, being compassionate and flexible is a good approach.
  • Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, an employee’s refusal to perform a task will be protected if all of the following conditions are met:
  • Where possible, the employee asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so; the employee refused to work in “good faith,” which means that the employee must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists.
  • A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury; and there is not enough time, because of the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection.

Check state and local laws to see if additional protections may apply.

Instead of replacing employees who express fear about contracting COVID-19, you should consider methods to encourage employees to come to work and to help put their minds at ease. Consider emphasizing all of the safety methods you have put in place (such as handwashing, frequent disinfection, social distancing rules, staggered shifts, or more extreme measures if warranted by your industry).

For the employees coming back to work, what can I do to keep them safe?

Organizations should focus on reducing transmission among employees, maintaining healthy business operations, and maintaining a healthy work environment. The CDC has published guidance on their website.

The EEOC has also issued guidance around taking temperatures. You can find detailed information on the EEOC website.

Measuring an employee’s body temperature is considered a medical examination. Due to COVID-19 being classified as a pandemic, employers may measure employee’s body temperature. However, employers should be aware some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever. As with all medical information, this information would be subject to ADA confidentiality requirements. If an employer is performing temperature checks, the information must be documented and placed in the employee’s medical file.

Here are a few ways to maintain social distancing in the workplace:

  • Staggered work shifts
  • Limit number of employees in breakrooms, restrooms, meeting rooms, etc.
  • Increase physical space between employees at the worksite
  • Implementation of flexible meeting and travel options (e.g., postpone non-essential meetings or events)
  • Deliver services remotely (e.g., phone, video, or web)
  • Deliver products through curbside pick-up or delivery

To view a sample return to work checklist, click here.

Accountability

How can I manage a remote workforce?

For your employees in roles that can do their jobs remotely, ensure they are situated physically and ergonomically, and they have technology tools to allow them to focus on their work and the right objectives.

Responsibilities may need to change due to changing organizational strategy. Employees know what they were responsible for in their current roles, but as business priorities change, employee’s roles and responsibilities may also change. This continually changing realignment of the work people are doing will be critical to business continuity.

Communication and collaboration take on new meaning. Ongoing video calls between managers and their employees addressing new responsibilities, feedback, obstacles and the ability to course correct become even more impactful. Organizations that previously engaged with a transparent culture, and continue in that vein, will have the added benefit of expedited realignment to our current work environment.

Increased remote work practices will likely remain, once we are past this unprecedented period in our history. Organizations that learn how to effectively operate within this framework will find an upper hand in the marketplace.

BPM’s HR Consulting team is here to help guide, support and facilitate companies through this challenging time and beyond. For additional information, contact Jill Pappenheimer, HR Consulting Partner at jpappenheimer@bpmcpa.com or 925-296-1058.