March 18, 2020 – Amidst the global pandemic of COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus, organizations, businesses, schools and universities, and state and local governments across the U.S. are scrambling to make decisions on how to operate given the growing threat of community spread of the disease and causing stress on our health care system.
Among those struggling with how to deal with the pandemic, and most likely without any employee policy or contingency plan, are small and medium sized law firms.
In response to the situation, our firm quickly drafted an emergency employee policy and considered contingency plans to deal with possible employee exposure issues related to COVID-19, and to assist in avoiding community spread of the disease.
Our policies were informed in large part in reliance on the CDC interim guidance for businesses and employers, and other community responses to the pandemic.
This policy is shared below for consideration and use by our colleagues trying to deal with this stressful and uncertain situation.
Please note the statements herein are based on existing circumstances and policies may be modified daily by federal, state, or local regulation.
What are Important Things to do Now?
Communication with employees is critical. Anxiety at best, panic at worst can easily set in as events are cancelled, schools are closed, and store shelves are bare.
Ensure that employees are informed about best practices to wash hands, clean and disinfect work stations and common areas, avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth, and coughing and sneezing into a tissue or elbow. Employees will likely have anxiety with the uncertainty of closures, and in the law firm setting work must be done: without extraordinary action from courts, filing deadlines and appearances remain.
Note that numerous circuit courts have issued orders and other guidance on calendars and court proceedings, including the suspension of jury trials.
What Employees Policies are Important?
For an office to continue to operate, controlling exposure and spread are key. Symptoms of COVID-19 include cough, fever, and shortness of breath. Employees should stay home at least 24 hours after showing signs of fever. Employees should be required to inform employers of travel out of the state, out of the country, or to known designated COVID-19 ‘hot-spots.’
To reduce the risk of exposure, employees who have traveled, who have known exposure to the novel coronavirus, or even those with possible exposure could be required to self-quarantine for an appropriate amount of time (typically 14 days) and monitor for symptoms. Employees who develop symptoms at work should be isolated from others, and when possible should leave work.
For employees who don’t exhibit symptoms, social distancing should be practiced to avoid spread from those who may have been exposed to the coronavirus but are asymptomatic. Social distancing means remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance approximately 6 feet from others when possible.
What If Workplace Exposure Occurs?
Small law firms may be the hardest hit if employee exposure or positive diagnosis occurs. If attorneys or staff are quarantined, the ability to practice could be severely impacted. Firms should consider how to operate with limited workforce, to maintain safe distances and isolation among employees working in the office who do not test positive or have not been exposed. Attorneys who rely on staff for e-filing may need to take a crash course on e-signatures, converting documents to PDF, and uploading documents.
Work with courts and co-counsel for stipulations to extend deadlines as needed. Work at home options should be considered for staff and attorneys. Prepare for the worst, because it is yet unknown the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Employee policies and workplace guidance are important to ensure continued operation of your firm. However, flexibility and responding to changing circumstances are important. Firm management should consider contingency plans in the event of employee quarantine (or law firm quarantine), the possibility for remote work, and other potential pitfalls that come with office closure. Providing calm leadership is the best thing firm management can do.
Sample Communication to Staff/Attorneys
Draft Employee Handbook Supplement – COVID-19 Response Plan
At present the novel coronavirus pandemic is a developing situation. Information and directives from federal, state and local authorities is changing day by day; sometimes hour by hour. Maintaining the safety and health of all who are affiliated with The Law Firm is a top priority. The information contained herein is an attempt to provide to you guidance in this unique situation and establish policy regarding this pandemic so that matters as they arise are handled uniformly, confidentially and timely for the safety and well being of all.
People can catch COVID-19 from others who have the virus. The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets also land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.
Therefore, it is important to stay more than 1 meter (3 feet) away from a person who is sick. The CDC recommends as much as 6 feet. It is possible to catch the virus from someone even before they have symptoms, but little is known about this aspect of the virus at this time. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads
All policies regarding sick time, vacation time, employee absence etc. as outlined in your Employee Handbook (as amended) remain in full force and effect.
This document is a supplement to the existing Law Firm Employment policies. This document does not alter employees’ rights or the firm’s obligations under disability discrimination and reasonable accommodation laws. Please refer to your Employee Handbook for more information.
Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness (i.e., fever, cough, shortness of breath) are required to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° F [37.8° C] or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g., acetaminophen, ibuprofen, cough suppressants). Employees should notify Human Resources via email of the occurrence and stay home if they are sick.
At present we do not require a health care provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as health care provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way. We do recommend that you obtain clearance from your health care provider that it is safe for you and those you work with to return to work before you do so.
Note that the CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e., cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately. Sick employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available). If you are unsure or have any question whether you are sick – do not come to work.
When you are at work you must practice cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene in the workplace areas.
Please note we are providing tissues, hand sanitizer and no-touch disposal receptacle wipes for use by employees.
It is your responsibility to clean your hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol, or wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
Before you leave your work area for the day you must clean all frequently touched surfaces in your workplace area, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents we are providing and follow the directions on the label. If you are temporarily working in another employee’s workstation, including the reception desk, you must clean surfaces and equipment (i.e., telephones, etc.) when you leave that area.
Check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country or U.S. domestic area to which you may travel. Follow their guidelines on travel. The CDC recommends that employees check themselves for symptoms of acute respiratory illness before starting travel and stay home if they are sick. Employees who become sick while traveling must notify Human Resources immediately and promptly call a health care provider for advice if needed. Do not return to work if you become sick.
Employees must report any travel outside of Wisconsin or to a CDC designated COVID-19 “hot spot” to Human Resources. The Law Firm will not prohibit any personal non-work related travel of Employees. However, employees who travel to a location that is designated as a COVID-19 hot spot, or after their return becomes designated as a COVID-19 hot spot, can expect that they will be required to self-quarantine at home until a period recommended by the CDC has passed.
Employees who are well but who have a sick family member[s] at home with COVID-19 must notify Human Resources regarding the same; the Law Firm will refer to the then applicable CDC guidelines on employee exposure and conduct a risk assessment to determine how to proceed at that time. It is anticipated that a sick or exposed employee will be required to self-quarantine for 10-14 days due to actual or potential exposure to COVID-19 subject to then available testing. It is the intention of the Law Firm to act in such a manner regarding COVID-19 actual or potential exposure to limit the risk to all in the workplace in a conservative and fair manner.
The Law Firm will work with employees with school-age children on a case-by-case basis to best respond to action taken by state or local governments that close schools, early-childhood programs, or before/after school care programs. Employees should be prepared to assist in their already designed backup support roles (if applicable) or be prepared to assist in other essential areas to help reduce any workplace disruptions that may arise due to employee absence for this or any other reason.
A report of actual or possible coronavirus exposure or respiratory illness to Human Resources will be consistent with Law Firm policies for all HR matters and remain confidential. If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, the Law Firm will inform all employees of their possible exposure to coronavirus in the workplace; confidentiality will be maintained as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 need to refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure. You may be required to leave the workplace immediately in management discretion based on coronavirus exposure alone.
Please remember to maintain the dignity of the workplace. This is a highly unique situation. The Law Firm will not tolerate any type of discrimination, harassment or similar behavior by an employee to another related to this pandemic. Such behavior could lead to your dismissal from employment.
The Law Firm will inform you of additional policies/procedures for this unique situation on as timely a basis as possible. Remember employer guidelines related to this pandemic are being modified constantly. All policies and procedures that exist at present regarding PTO, sick time, vacation time, etc., remain in full force and effect. We are working on developing a policy and procedure if the firm was required to temporarily shut down or quarantine.