The COVID-19 pandemic continues to develop rapidly. Even as China hits its recovery period and reports fewer cases, new cases continue to develop in other parts of the globe. Much of the U.S. is headed toward lockdown to minimize spreading of the disease, and it’s projected to get worse before it gets better.
Unemployment numbers are expected to skyrocket over the coming weeks, warns Kate Bischoff, attorney and HR consultant with tHRive Law and Consulting LLC. She agrees with estimates from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has predicted that COVID-19 could drive unemployment up to 20%.
A medical scare as widespread as COVID-19 is unprecedented in our time. Hourly employees are seeing drastic cuts in time available to work. Employers want to support employees, but many are struggling with finances as they face temporary shutdowns.
Here are some options for supporting your organization’s hourly workers through this crisis.
Empower Remote Work When Possible
If your organization can support remote work, make sure employees have everything they need to work from home. Not every employee has a personal computer to work from, so be prepared to supply the secure technology employees need to keep work flowing.
Employees who aren’t used to remote work may have trouble adjusting to the change. Offering guidance on how to establish routines and schedules can help your employees transition smoothly from office to remote work. This guidance from Microsoft offers a great blueprint.
Make sure that remote hourly employees understand how to track their time. This is the basis of their pay, so it’s important for employers to have records of time worked throughout the day, Bischoff points out. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, working “off-the-clock” is illegal, so protect yourself and your employees by implementing clear remote clock-in procedures.
Modify Schedules and Minimize Human Contact
If you’re in an industry that is cleared to continue operations, consider splitting your workforce to minimize social interactions between employees. “Have half of your employees work Monday/Wednesday/Friday and the other half work Tuesday/Thursday,” Bischoff suggests. “Then swap for the next week.” Limiting the amount of people on the floor at any given time may slow down production, but it can also mitigate disease spread among employees.
Essential industries like transportation are also continuing to run with modifications. Bischoff suggests eliminating cash transfers and in-person signatures. Measures like these can help employees continue working while reducing their contact and exposure to the virus.
Offer Options to Work Skeleton Crew or Seek Unemployment
As much as you would love to give all of your employees the chance to work, it may not be feasible in the coming weeks. Organizations like restaurants or retail chains that are limiting services to pickup or takeout may opt to keep a skeleton crew while everyone else is furloughed. Furloughing employees at this critical time seems heartless, but it can qualify them for unemployment while helping employers save money and avoid layoffs. Now is the time to talk to your staff and decide which employees will maintain limited hours, and who will have their hours zeroed out and be advised to apply for unemployment.
If you have the short-term financial resources, employees who are unable to work due to personal or family illness could qualify for paid sick leave under the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Applicable employers have to cover short-term costs but qualify for tax credits and refunds next year. The law takes effect April 1. For employers who cannot carry the cost, layoffs may still be the best option for you and your employees’ well-being.
One way to support employees who must be laid off is by rolling their traditional severance pay into COBRA, Bischoff says. COBRA enables employees to maintain health benefits even if they’re no longer employed. Putting severance pay toward health benefits ensures that employees have coverage, at least for a time, without hindering their ability to qualify for unemployment assistance, Bischoff points out.
Whatever measures you ultimately take to protect employees and your business, it’s critical to keep employees updated. “Communicate regularly with your employees about what your organization’s current status is and when you anticipate reopening,” Bischoff says. If your employees have been furloughed with the intention of coming back, for example, they need to know when that’s likely to be.
Identify the best communication channels and commit to sending employees regular updates. These are difficult times, and out-of-work hourly employees have to be intentional about their next career moves. You can support them through that, to the best of your abilities, by remaining transparent and providing as much information as you can about your company’s short-term and long-term intentions.