Nearly one month after Pennsylvania shut down in March to slow the spread of COVID-19, Governor Wolf announced a three-phase plan to reopen the Commonwealth.  Counties were to be classified in to red, yellow, and green phases with each step carrying progressively easing restrictions.  As more counties approach the least-restrictive green phase, employers should consider several factors as Pennsylvania emerges from the shutdown and workers begin returning to their regular jobsites.

Masks or No Masks

One decision nearly every employer will have to make during the green phase is whether to excuse any employees from wearing masks as they return to work.  There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.  Employees who work physically demanding jobs or in high temperature environments may face health risks if required to wear a mask while working – and guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health does not require masking in any situation where a mask would cause a safety or health risk.  By contrast, workers whose jobs are less physically demanding or are located in climate controlled environments will typically be able to safely wear face masks while at work.  Likewise, public-facing employers whose employees have regular, in-person customer contact will have a heightened need for protection regardless of whether they work in heat; in these situations some employers may opt to require face shields in lieu of masks.  Whatever an employer decides regarding the use of masks in its facility, its decision should be based on applicable government guidance and sound reasoning that considers employee and public safety alike.

Cleaning Up and Keeping Clean

Before COVID-19, employers probably gave little thought to the cleaning regimens in place at their facilities.  With employees returning to work,  businesses should examine their cleaning practices and protocols.  Areas that are commonly occupied by multiple employees or customers (think lobbies and break rooms) should be cleaned and disinfected nightly, as should commonly touched surfaces and objects.  Broad-spectrum cleaning agents that kill viruses and bacteria are best.  Individual workstations and whole-office cleanings should also take place regularly.

Complying with State and Federal Guidelines

Governor Wolf and the federal Centers for Disease Control have each issued guidance for employers.  As green phase approaches, employers should regularly consult these resources to ensure that they are complying with applicable guidelines.  Where compliance is not feasible, employers should be prepared to support their actions through sound reasoning and by complying to the extent possible.

Educating Employees

As Pennsylvania moves from yellow phase to green, employers should formulate a strategy to educate employees on return to work protocols and procedures, and ongoing efforts to mitigate risks associated with COVID-19.  Education and communication ensures that employees are mindful of, and understand, new policies and procedures.  Their awareness of ongoing mitigation efforts not only helps to lower anxiety about returning to work, but also increases the likelihood that employers’ mitigation efforts are successful.

Expect Some Bumps in the Road and Have a Plan for Handling Them

What should an employer do about workers who refuse to come back to the jobsite?  Should employees travel out of state on business?  What if an employee develops COVID-like symptoms upon returning to work?  Employers should consider these and other issues that are likely to arise as their workforces return to the job and have plans in place to address them.  When the answer to a problem is not clear, businesses should seek legal counsel to avoid making mistakes that could prove costly.

If you have any questions about preparing your Pennsylvania business for operation in the green phase, contact any member of our Labor & Employment Group.