Legal considerations for returning to work

Companies all over the world reacted swiftly and empathetically to the COVID-19 crisis, altering their working practices to facilitate their employees working from home and maintaining operations. Many companies took aid from their governments to retain as many jobs as possible through furlough schemes, while others had to make difficult decisions to preserve their businesses, including layoffs/redundancies, reduced working hours, pay cuts and pay freezes.

The health and safety of the workforce should be management’s top priority as it considers how to bring operations back to some semblance of normal.

Employees are counting on their companies to help them get back to work safely. Management teams will need to understand and ensure compliance with federal, state and local orders as restrictions are eased. Since these rules vary by locale and probably won’t be relaxed in unison, executives should plan for a range of scenarios based on where mission-critical work takes place.

Once it’s possible to reopen offices, factories and distribution centers, management teams will face the challenge of keeping them safe. New protocols for deep cleaning and sanitization may be needed. It could also mean changes to the layout of the workspace, such as moving workstations farther apart or changing employee schedules to reduce the number of people in buildings at one time.

Companies may also wish to consider establishing guidelines for the use of personal protective equipment, such as face masks and gloves, checking employees and visitors for fever before entering the workplace, and establishing rules governing when employees can return to work after recovering from infection.

The employment law considerations for returning to work

Laws will vary between countries, and this article explores the following questions to consider when planning a return to work for your employees:

  • Can you introduce rotations in order to reduce the number of employees on your premises at any one time?
  • If you have reduced your employee base through lay-offs/redundancy, can you gradually re-hire ex-employees, and again let them go should the government impose a further lockdown?
  • Should you change the make-up of your workforce to make employment more agile and therefore easier to respond to various government restrictions?
  • Can you introduce or extend a “reduced working week” if you need to?
  • Do you need special policies for seasonal/migrant workers?
  • Do you need new policies for ongoing testing or health screening?
  • Can you force employees to use personal protective equipment (e.g., facemasks) at work?

By the time a company is ready to begin planning for a return to the workplace, its crisis-management team, will likely have been meeting and discussing these issues for some time. Boards should make sure they’re getting the information they need to understand the progress and execution of management’s return-to-work strategy.

How and when companies bring employees back could have long-lasting implications for the business and corporate culture. By understanding the risks, boards can play an effective role in overseeing management’s plans to return to the workplace.