As COVID-19, or coronavirus disease 2019, spreads across the globe, the international community has braced for worst-case scenarios. From travel restrictions to the quarantining of entire cities, health and government officials the world over hope to slow the spread of the virus, which has, as of this writing, infected more than 90,000, killed more than 3,000, and is present on every continent, save Antarctica.
Here in the United States, businesses are also grappling with the virus, trying to keep revenue flowing while maintaining a healthy and functional workforce. The virus has moved at breakneck speed, from a blip on the radar late last year to a global health crisis just a few months later.
Thanks to the United States’ everyone-for-themselves approach to health care, many employers here are scrambling to fix the plane while it’s in the air. We don’t know what our planet will look like once we get this infectious disease under control, but we do know one thing — the coronavirus will lay bare our country’s ability to keep the lights on in the face of an ongoing national emergency.
Spoiler alert: Our workforce is not prepared.
Take, for example, an article that appeared this week on GQ.com. The title: “America’s Inflexible Workplace Rules Make Coronavirus More Dangerous — Millions of workers can’t stay home even if they’re sick and infectious.”
According to the article, the Centers for Disease Control issued guidelines, including a set specifically for businesses. Managers should “actively encourage sick employees to stay home” and “maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member.”
The CDC is also encouraging employers to “develop non-punitive leave policies.”
As the article points out, “Unfortunately, that’s directly at odds with American business culture. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the U.S. is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t require paid time off for workers. As a result, a staggering quarter of all working Americans have no paid time off.”
The Business Journal has argued for federal laws supporting family and medical leave before. But that was to support employees and their family members dealing with common life issues.
And while conflicting official statements and a 24-hour media cycle certainly don’t help to ease tensions, there’s nothing common about this virus.
In times like these, business owners need to weigh the short-term impact on their bottom line against the potential long-term impact of sick employees coming to work.
According to an article that appeared this week in The New York Times, “Sixty-eight percent of the employers surveyed said they would pay employees as long as a quarantine lasted, even if they showed no symptoms and couldn’t work from home because of the nature of their job. Twelve percent said they would pay for a fixed amount of time, such as two weeks. Twenty percent of the companies, which were surveyed from Feb. 13 to Feb. 20, said they didn’t know or hadn’t made a decision yet on what they would do.”
The article states that paying workers incentivizes potentially sick employees to “self-identify and self-quarantine,” slowing the spread of the virus.
But paid time off, whether vacation or sick days, may not be enough to handle a long-term shutdown. Plans need to go further, so businesses aren’t caught off-guard if large numbers of workers need to stay home for longer periods of time. Employers and employees should have a clear definition of what working remotely would entail and proper procedures should be in place to ensure business could continue during a global, national or even region-wide incident.
COVID-19 is just getting started in the U.S. It could be quickly contained and short-lived, or it may have a substantial impact. But communicating with employees and putting solid plans in place now could ease hardships down the line.