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Answers to Common HR Questions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

There are some events that we can plan for and there are others that we cannot.  I think we can all agree that the COVID-19 Pandemic is one of those events that no one could have imagined much less planned for.  That being said, it is here and as a result we have the opportunity to revisit the way we run our businesses and in particular the way we manage our human resources.

In terms of managing the human resources aspect of your business, there are numerous foundational tenets that never change:

  • Leadership is paramount -employees need a leader to provide direction, hope and support.  Strong leadership is essential all the time, but the importance of strong leadership is magnified in uncertain times. 
  • Communication is crucial – employees need constant communication.  One thing I’ve learned in 30 years as an HR Leader, is that when the facts are absent, employees fill in the gaps. Employees will imagine the worst, make things up and jump to the wrong conclusions if we as leaders do not provide them with the facts and the direction they need to perform their roles and ensure that your business is positioned to achieve your goals. 
  • Employees need to feel valued and a sense that they matter.  This sounds elementary, and yet it is consistently a top 5 item for reasons employees stay with their organizations.  When employees do not feel valued and that they matter, it is a top 5 reason for why they leave their company.

In addition to these essential HR best practices, here are some of the most frequently asked HR questions and answers related to the current situation.

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

It’s a significant difference. A furlough is a temporary suspension of hours and pay, but the employee is still active on your payroll. They’re just not working or being paid. A layoff is an actual termination of employment. People you lay off are no longer employees and not on your payroll.

How do furloughs and layoffs affect health benefits and unemployment?

Benefits eligibility is always dictated by what your health benefits plan documents state. In general, though, furloughed employees can keep their benefits. Laid-off employees cannot unless there’s a COBRA offering, in which case they can purchase those benefits.

In most states, employees on furlough are also eligible for unemployment. Unemployment is available for terminated employees.

Can I ask everyone to reduce hours to decrease furloughs and layoffs?

Yes, you can ask everyone to reduce hours, but there are some specific guidelines regarding non-exempt and exempt employees you need to understand first. When it comes to non-exempt employees, you can reduce hours worked in a week. For exempt employees, you cannot reduce the number of hours in a workweek. You can, however, ask them to take a week off.

Why? When you treat an exempt employee like a non-exempt employee, you jeopardize that status and risk violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. Exempt employees are expected to be paid a salary regardless of the number of hours they work. But the law does allow you to say, “They didn’t work for a week, so I will not pay them for that whole week.”

How do I fairly decide who to let go, repurpose, and rehire without triggering discrimination complaints?

The two most important concepts are consistency and documentation. You must have fair criteria to decide who you are going to let go or repurpose. Identify those criteria upfront, write them down, and consistently apply them. Here are some typical questions to consider.

  • Who has the potential for promotion?
  • Who has the potential for transferability of their skills into other positions?
  • What’s their demonstrated current and past performance?
  • What are the needs of the practice? Are there specific projects?
  • What’s the length of service?

Whatever standards you choose, consistently apply those same criteria to every person and every position. Also, seek guidance from an attorney because there are many legal risks associated with letting employees go. There are different rules by state, the rules change constantly, and there are notification rules that we have to follow. The only way to mitigate these risks is to have a legal expert involved.

When it comes to rehiring, the same methods of consistency and documentation apply. Determine and document criteria that can be consistently applied for rehiring folks, especially if you’re going to be rehiring some and not all. This is another risk situation where someone could claim discrimination. You have to be able to defend that employees you do not bring back were for fair, objective, non-discriminatory reasons. If you bring everybody back, of course, the risk is gone.

Should we ask for volunteers for reduced hours or furloughs?

You can ask for volunteers, but it’s a bold move that requires caution. What if your top performers volunteer and your weakest performers don’t? Then you’re stuck with an office full of weak performers, while your strong performers were the ones you really need during this time.  In that case, you jeopardize quality in your practice.

Can I require employees to work if I don’t have PPE to keep them safe?

That’s a completely different situation. Don’t force people to take PTO when you’re not providing them with PPE. You’re opening yourself up for major complaints with OSHA, and you do not want OSHA showing up at your door.

What should I do about new hires I can’t train or use?

There are three options in this situation:

  1. Explain the obvious and offer them the opportunity to take some time off without pay until you’re in a better position to train them.
  2. Repurpose them for the time being. Teach them a minor task that doesn’t require significant training as a way to relieve the burden of those stellar employees who are carrying a big load. Assign each new person to a heavy-burdened person as a helper.
  3. If the person hasn’t started yet, you might be able to call and say, “We’re just not ready for you. We want to do a good job with your onboarding, and we won’t be able to do that right now. Is it OK if we push your start date back a few weeks?”

For ideas on how you can keep your staff morale high, even during uncertain times, check out this eBook, Nine Simple Ways to Increase Staff Productivity.

Mary Ellen Harris, PhD
mharris@officepracticum.com


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