When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.6 on March 20th closing all non-essential businesses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, no one could have predicted what would happen next. Most of us assumed the virus would be gone within weeks and we’d be back in the office in no time. Few businesses, if any, were prepared for a worldwide pandemic, office closures lasting months, and the shift to work from home. Almost five months later, New York’s ten regions have all entered Phase Four, allowing non-essential businesses in every industry to reopen. But after all this time, what does re-opening mean for your business and how do you safely staff offices?
To start the reopening process, businesses are required to develop safety plans that meet state guidelines and requirements in three key areas. Follow along as we review employer requirements in each area, outline how to reopen offices in New York, and prepare your employees for the new normal at work.
Protections for Employees
The first area of focus in NY Forward’s safety plan template from the Department of Health is people. In order to reopen a business or office, physical distancing is required. This means businesses must ensure six feet of distance between employees in the workplace and any customers or visitors on site. If it is not possible to maintain that level of separation, masks or face coverings must be worn, and employers will need to provide sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) at no-cost to employees. Guidelines also recommend that occupancy be limited to 50% capacity or less, especially for smaller, confined spaces.
In addition to social distancing and limited capacities, the guidelines strongly suggest limiting non-essential travel and in-person gatherings to protect employees. Perhaps this means that your team’s weekly meeting is still held over Zoom in order to avoid gathering in a conference room. Another way to aid social distancing efforts is to adjust the hours of your workplace and add shifts to reduce office density. This could have the extra benefit of allowing employees who might be busy caring for children or family members to shift their work hours, improving office safety while increasing job flexibility.
Finally, businesses need to establish specific pickup and delivery areas to help limit contact between outsiders and on-site workers. If precautions and procedures aren’t in place, deliveries or other visits on-site visits could risk the health and well-being of your entire office.
Ensuring a Safe Workplace
The second area of focus, according to NY State’s Reopening Guide, is the physical workspace. For companies, this means following strict hygiene and sanitation requirements that meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York Department of Health guidelines. If an office is open every day, it must be cleaned and disinfected at least once a day. For companies that have multiple shifts, cleaning should be done after each one to ensure the safety of the next group of workers. High-traffic areas like restrooms, shared kitchens, and common areas will also need regular sanitation, as will any shared tools, machines, or surfaces used frequently by employees in the course of their work.
Cleaning efforts alone, however, won’t be enough to ensure a safe workplace. That’s why documenting daily cleaning and communicating disinfection procedures is also important. For most employers, this will likely include logging the date, time, and scope of cleaning. Posting signage throughout the office can also help remind employees to socially distance themselves, use proper PPE, keep up with personal hygiene (regular handwashing and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer), and follow cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
Screening and Tracing Procedures
The third key area required in employer safety plans involves health screening processes and contact tracing procedures. With these in place, businesses will be better prepared to handle COVID exposures and meet shifting public health obligations brought on by any changes in COVID spread.
First, offices will be required to implement health screening assessments to be conducted before employees begin work each day. These assessments should include questions about COVID symptoms and any positive tests or possible exposure. A temperature check is also recommended and may be conducted per Equal Employment Opportunity or Department of Health guidelines. Sufficient PPE should be available to ensure screenings are carried out safely and follow the social distancing measures previously discussed. Screening and in/out logs should also be set up for non-employees, like delivery workers, who enter the workplace as part of their role.
Next, procedures will need to be in place should an employee or someone with access to the office test positive for COVID-19. At a minimum, a contact tracing process will be necessary to identify and notify those employees, customers, or other visitors who might have been impacted. Additionally, extensive cleaning and disinfecting above and beyond the daily sanitation routine will be important before any other employees re-enter the workplace.
While it can be tempting to overlook the risk of COVID exposure, especially in areas with declining infection rates, having screening and tracing processes in place now will save you significant time and energy should an outbreak occur at your office.
Are you preparing to reopen your business? Concerned about meeting all the state and federal guidelines? Ethan Allen HR Services is here to help. With our comprehensive HR solutions and dedicated local support, our team has your back. Reach out today to learn more.