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COVID-19 FAQ

From our HR Resource Center

Can employees refuse to travel to areas considered safe from COVID-19?

Answered by The HR Pros

You can require employees to travel as long as you meet your general duty under OSHA to provide a workplace (including any travel location) that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.

To ensure that you are not subjecting an employee to excessive risk, check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country where the employee is traveling. 

Perhaps more important than whether you can force an employee to travel is whether you should. Requiring a fearful employee to travel will erode trust and confidence and likely cause them significant anxiety. Consider video calls or videoconferencing as an (inexpensive!) alternative to traveling for the next few weeks or months.

Also keep in mind that employees who are immunocompromised or have other relevant disabilities may be entitled to an accommodation (such as not traveling, given current conditions) under the ADA.

 

Can we send employees home if they are symptomatic?

Answered by The HR Pros

Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised employers that employees who appear to have symptoms of COVID-19 (e.g., cough, shortness of breath) should be separated from other employees and sent home immediately. If the employee feels well enough to work, consider whether they can effectively telecommute. 

Note: Non-exempt employees may be entitled to a few extra hours of pay if you’re in a state with reporting time pay, but this cost will be well worth it to maintain the safety of the workplace. 

 

How do I make a telecommuting policy?

Answered by The HR Pros

Although some employers will be comfortable sending everyone home with their laptop and saying, go forth and be productive, most will want to be a little more specific. A good telecommuting policy will generally address productivity standards, hours of work, how and when employees should be in contact with their manager or subordinates, and office expenses.

For instance, your policy might require that employees are available by phone and messaging app during their regular in-office hours, that they meet all deadlines and maintain client contacts per usual, and that they check in with their manager at the close of each workday to report what they have accomplished. Be sure to let employees know whom to contact if they run into technical difficulties at home.

You’ll also want to specify how expenses related to working from home will be dealt with. If you don’t expect there to be any additional expenses involved, communicate this. You don’t want employees thinking this is their chance to purchase a standing desk and fancy ergonomic chair on your dime. That said, you should consider whether employees will incur reasonable and necessary expenses while working from home. Some states mandate reimbursement for these kinds of expenses, but it’s a good practice to cover such costs even if it’s not required by law.

 

What’s the difference between a furlough and a layoff?

Answered by The HR Pros

First, you should note that the language used when sending employees home for a period of time is less important than communicating your actual intent. Since temporary layoffs and furloughs are only used regularly in certain industries (usually seasonal), you should not assume that employees will know what they mean. Be sure to communicate your plans for the future, even if they feel quite uncertain or are only short-term.

Furlough
A furlough continues employment, but reduces scheduled hours or requires a period of unpaid leave. The thought process is that having all employees incur a bit of hardship is better than some losing their jobs completely. For example, a company may reduce hours to 20 per week for a period of time as a cost-saving measure, or they may place everyone on a two-week unpaid leave. This is typically not considered termination; however, you may still need to provide certain notices to employees about the change in the relationship, and they would likely still be eligible for unemployment.

If the entire company won't be furloughed, but only certain employees, it is important to be able to show that staff selection is not being done for a discriminatory reason. You'll want to document the non-discriminatory business reasons that support the decision to furlough certain employees and not others, such as those that perform essential services. 

Layoff
A layoff involves terminating employment during a period when no work is available. This may be temporary or permanent. If you close down completely, but you intend to reopen in the relatively near future or have an expected reopening date—at which time you will rehire an employee, or all employees—this would be considered a temporary layoff. Temporary layoffs are appropriate for relatively short-term slowdowns or closures. A layoff is generally considered permanent if there are no plans to rehire the employee or employees because the slowdown or closure is expected to be lengthy or permanent.

Pay for Exempt Employees (those not entitled to overtime)
Exempt employees do not have to be paid if they do no work at all for an entire workweek. However, if work is not available for a partial week for an exempt employee, they must be paid their full salary for that week, regardless of the fact that they have done less work. If the point is to save money (and it usually is), it's best to ensure that the layoff covers the company's established 7-day workweek for exempt employees. Make it very clear to exempt employees that they should do absolutely no work during any week you're shut down. If exempt employees do any work during that time, they will need to be paid their normal weekly salary.

Pay for Non-Exempt Employees (those entitled to overtime)
Non-exempt employees only need to be paid for actual hours worked, so single day or partial-week furloughs can be applied to them without worrying about pay implications. 

We recommend that you engage in open communication with the affected employees before and during the furlough or temporary layoff period.

 

If we choose to close temporarily, do we need to pay employees?

Answered by The HR Pros

It depends on the employee’s classification.

Non-exempt employees only need to be paid only for actual hours worked. For these employees, you may:

  1. Pay the employee for the time, even though they did not work;
  2. Require they take the time off unpaid;
  3. Require they use any available vacation time or PTO; or
  4. Allow employees to choose between taking an unpaid day or using vacation or PTO.

All four options are compliant with state and federal law. We generally recommend option 4—allowing but not requiring employees to use vacation time or PTO. If your office is required to close by health authorities and your state has a sick leave law, employees may be able to use accrued paid sick leave during the closure.

Exempt employees must be paid their regular salary unless the office is closed for an entire workweek and they do no work at all from home. You can, however, require them to use accrued vacation or PTO during a closure if you have a policy that indicates you will do so, or if this has been your past practice. When it comes to accrued vacation or PTO, it is safest to give employees advance notice if there are situations where you will use their accrued hours whether they like it or not.

 

Can we reduce pay because of economic slowdown due to COVID-19?

Answered by The HR Pros

You can reduce an employee's rate of pay based on business or economic slowdown, provided that this is not done retroactively. For instance, if you give employees notice that their pay will change on the 10th, and your payroll period runs from the 1st through the 15th, make sure that their next check still reflects the higher rate of pay for the first 9 days of the payroll period. 

Non-exempt employees (those entitled to overtime)
A non-exempt employee's new rate of pay must still meet the applicable federal, state, or local minimum wage. Employees must be given notice of the change at the time of the change, or before. This gives them the ability to stop working if they don’t agree with the new rate of pay and can help prevent a wage claim. 

Exempt employees (those not entitled to overtime)
An exempt employee's new salary must still be at or above the federal or state minimum for exempt employees. The federal minimum salary is $684 per week. Several states have weekly minimums that are higher than that (California and New York, for instance, are in the $1,000 per week range). The minimum may not be prorated based on hours worked.

Exempt employee reclassification
If an exempt employee has so little work to do that it does not make sense to pay them the federal or state minimum (or you simply cannot afford to), they can be reclassified as non-exempt and be paid by the hour instead. This must not be done on a very short-term basis. Although there are no hard and fast rules about how long you can reclassify someone, we would recommend not changing their classification unless you expect the slowdown to last for more than three weeks. Changing them back and forth frequently could cause you to lose their exemption retroactively and potentially owe years of overtime.

Employees with contracts or CBAs
If employees have employment contracts or are subject to collective bargaining agreements, you should consult with an attorney before makes any changes to pay.

 

How are we supposed to pay for the sick leave and FMLA leave mandated by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act?

Answered by The HR Pros

Employers who provide paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act will be reimbursed, dollar-for-dollar, via a quarterly payroll tax credit against the employer portion of Social Security taxes. Benefits paid under this program are not subject to federal income taxes.

The Secretary of Labor may also exempt certain businesses with fewer than 50 employees if it would put the viability of the business at risk. We do not know yet how exemptions will work (applications process, blanket exemption, etc.), but we will update our information here — and elsewhere on the Support Center — as soon as we do.  

The Treasury Secretary also said that smaller employers may be eligible for cash advances from the government in order to pay for these benefits, and that employers that have cash deposited with the IRS may be able to use those funds. Again, we have no additional details at this time; we will update information here as soon as we do.

 

If we close temporarily, will employees be able to file for unemployment insurance?

Answered by The HR Pros

Depending on the length of the closure, employees may be able to file for unemployment insurance. Waiting periods range from 1-3 weeks and are determined by state law. Be prepared to respond to requests for verification or information from the state UI department if you close for longer than the mandatory waiting period.