When, Why and How to Update the Employee Handbook to Address COVID-19

COVID-19 completely changed the way many organizations operate in just a matter of months, and the implications of the pandemic for workplaces and workers are only beginning to come into focus. As a result, most organizations have not yet fully updated their employee handbooks to reflect the new normal.

Complying with a multitude of new federal and state rules and regulations must be addressed, and the myriad new procedures the employer has adopted must be spelled out in detail. Following are some examples of the policies that should be updated in light of COVID-19.

Attendance and Work Schedule

Employees in some places may still be under stay-at-home orders. Even after those orders are lifted, organizations may encourage their employees to telework as a way to manage potential exposure to the novel coronavirus. In such instances, employers should carefully review and augment their teleworking policies.

Language in the employee handbook should make it clear when employees are permitted to work from home, whether they must first request permission to do so and the rules to be followed when teleworking. If non-exempt employees are working from home, strict procedures for recording time worked and regulating overtime hours should be described in detail.

Vacation, Sick Leave and Family & Medical Leave

Employers must revise their vacation, sick leave and family and medical leave policies to account for new requirements under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). The law, which took effect April 1, 2020, requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide their employees with paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. The law remains in effect until Dec. 31, 2020.

Under FFCRA, paid leave is available if an employee

  • Is under quarantine or self-isolating due to COVID-19;
  • Is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis;
  • Is caring for someone else who is under quarantine or is self-isolating; or
  • Is caring for a child whose school or place of care is closed due to COVID-19–related reasons.

Employers should also make sure their leave and emergency leave policies comply with state and local regulations regarding employee time off due to COVID-19.

Putting forth an updated framework for handling requests for accommodations is also in order. Employees who are members of populations that are identified as being more vulnerable to COVID-19 are likely covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. In particular, employees who are caring for or living with more-vulnerable individuals may seek permission to work from home or to adjust their work schedule in some other way. Employees should know the procedures for making such requests, as well to whom such requests should be directed.

Visitors

Rules for allowing visitors to enter worksites must be considered. When completely banning visitors is not feasible, an organization needs to implement policies that limit the number of visitors and set expectations for safe behavior. Examples of such policies include

  • Requiring visitors and employees to stay six feet apart;
  • Mandating that visitors take certain precautions while on the premises, including wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and submitting to temperature checks; and
  • Enhancing cleaning procedures.

Facility Cleanliness

Most employers have already developed strategies for enhanced sanitation, including cleaning common areas and frequently touched surfaces more often and more thoroughly. When updating its employee handbook, an employer should include protocols for maintaining a clean and safe workplace.

Dress Code

If employees will be required to wear masks in common areas or when interacting with coworkers and customers, an employer should write those rules into the dress code. The same is true for employee hygiene policies. An updated handbook should include protocols for cleaning one’s workspace or office, washing one’s hands regularly and using hand sanitizer.

Electronic Communications and Electronic Devices

When more employees work remotely more often, employers should take additional steps to protect confidential information, ensure the security of electronic payments and prevent misuse of social media. Issuing and enforcing clear rules regarding when and why employees are permitted to take their employer’s electronic devices home with them, as well as when employees may use their own devices for work, are essential.