The “New Normal” of Your People Practices

The Impact of COVID-19 on Your HR Policies and Procedures

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The Impact of COVID-19 on Your HR Policies and Procedures

At this point you’ve more than likely received plenty of COVID-19 alerts, articles, blog updates, webinar requests and FAQs to last a lifetime – each important in its own way depending on your particular organization’s circumstances. Understandably, the primary focus of many small business owners has been on the myriad of economic relief options available (e.g., the Paycheck Protection Program) to keep businesses afloat, retain employees, and emerge from the pandemic in a way that will restore growth and success.

While the daily race to keep up with the dizzying amount of information and relief options may not have abated just yet, I do think it’s time to take a collective breath and ensure that we’re thinking about our people practices – what we should be doing today, tomorrow and in the weeks/months that lie ahead. Whether you have employees on furlough/temporary layoff, working reduced schedules, working remotely, or all of the above, here are five areas for business and HR leaders to be thinking about and some of the questions that should be asked:

1. Paid Sick and Family Leave  

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) leave eligibility (and associated tax credits for employers) became effective April 1. Does FFCRA even apply to your organization? What about the exemptions for businesses less than 50 employees? Employers are now required to notify employees of their rights via the FFCRA poster, and employers (and their payroll providers) should be tracking and paying qualifying employees accordingly. As required by the IRS for payroll tax credits, criteria for leave and the documentation to support it is very specific, and as such FFCRA leave forms and policies should be developed and implemented as soon as possible. While FFCRA leave law may be temporary (through 12/31/20) and seem straightforward, there are numerous eligibility and compliance scenarios for employers and employees that may present difficult challenges. Click here for a copy of our FFCRA Paid Sick and Family and Medical Leave toolkit.

2. Employee Benefits  

Retirement plan rules, restrictions and penalties for hardship withdrawals, loans and required minimum distributions have been eased for COVID-19 related reasons in 2020. Many health and welfare carriers are relaxing or waiving existing policies on eligibility, enrollment periods and premium payment due dates. For example, a carrier that would typically require a certain amount of hours worked in a week (e.g., 30 or more) in order for an employee to remain eligible for coverage may change the requirement to zero, thus allowing employees on furlough to remain on the health insurance without having to elect COBRA. Existing plan documents should be updated to allow for these changes. At the same time, while carriers may be allowing employees or dependents to jump on their plans outside of open enrollment or a standard qualifying life event, IRS rules may require that associated employee premiums be made post-tax, not pre-tax. Additionally, for many organizations, annual open enrollment occurs in the spring and employers should be working with their carriers/benefits brokers now to ensure that employees fully understand what their options are along with potential cost implications. This is also a time when Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) should be earning their money – many employees are unaware of their EAP’s benefits or that one exists at all.

3. Going Back to Work  

One of the most excruciating decisions a business owner has to make is laying off employees. Many businesses have already done so, often employing a combination of approaches including:

  • WorkShare – allowing employees to work reduced schedules while receiving partial unemployment 
  • Standby Status” – temporary layoff where employees remain ready to return while being eligible for unemployment 
  • Salary Reductions  
  • Remote Work  

As we continue to see New England state leaders begin to reopen and slowly lift restrictions, business leaders should be planning accordingly for that ramp up by answering important questions such as: who do I bring back first and why, and how do I ensure that my decisions are based on sound business rationale and are non-discriminatory? How will I communicate with those I decide to bring back and those I don’t? What can I do now to prevent employees from being poached by a competitor? What do I do with employees who would rather not return out of COVID-19 fears or because they potentially receive more from the CARES Act enhanced unemployment benefits? Overall compliance, efficiency and morale are well served when the analysis, preparation and implementation of the return to work phase is given the same consideration as the reduction phase.

Employers should also be mindful of local, state and federal return-to-work safety standards and requirements including the development of COVID-19 response plans and postings.

4. Developing and Updating Employee Policies and Handbooks 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many employers to blow the dust off of outdated employee handbooks and policies that haven’t necessarily aligned with the current challenges and “new normal.” At a minimum, FFCRA paid sick and family leave policies should already be developed that go beyond just distributing the FFCRA poster—how does other PTO factor in (or not) and have your existing PTO policies been a support or hindrance? Has the evolving “new normal” caused you to rethink your work-from-home policies? How does the shift to working from home impact other ancillary items such as workers compensation and liability insurance? OSHA’s recent guidance on the development of infectious disease preparedness and response plans should also be a key area of focus for employer health, wellness and safety policy and procedure review. Once developed, these plans should be communicated via updated handbooks/safety manuals and employee/manager training.

5. Emotional Intelligence in Leadership  

Great leaders know that stress, anxiety and uncertainty impact people in a variety of different ways and that “high-touch leadership” – regular, honest and straightforward communication delivered with compassion and empathy – is a difference maker for employee trust in such challenging times (especially those that might be on furlough or temporary layoff). Science tells us that employees would rather know nothing has changed or even bad news rather than no news at all. Reaching every employee individually isn’t always feasible – where possible equip your management team with the information and tools they need to also demonstrate the emotional intelligence skills that are so critical during such unsettled times. Don’t worry about trying to craft the perfect message – authenticity is what will resonate with your employees.

The “New Normal” is developing daily, sometimes hourly, right in front of our eyes. Employers that also view these challenges as opportunities to review and adapt their people policies, practices and systems will be much better positioned for growth and success as we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis…the attraction and retention of talent, during good times and bad, will always have bottom line impact.

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