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Work and the Coronavirus

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Helping people understand how COVID-19 affects work and employment by sharing insights and help from ILR's workplace experts.

Five Tips for Startups and Small Businesses Returning to Work

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Nate Cook

Nate Cook is an entrepreneur in residence and lecturer for the Cornell SC Johnson School.

Like all startup founders or small business owners, you are eager to grow your business, while relying on a small team. You act nimbly to adjust to changes in your market. While the current global pandemic may have placed larger obstacles in your way than you could have anticipated, it is nothing you can’t handle with the right tactics.

There are many things you need to consider when leading a business and managing a workforce, even before the pandemic changing our daily lives and the economy. Now you are forced to reevaluate your business models and strategies. Where do you begin?

I teamed up with a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs and compiled their advice on legal and practical issues to consider steps to manage your workforce in both the short and long term:

  1. Be careful when choosing employees to return to work. It is likely that you may have employees that have been laid off or furloughed. When determining which of these employees will be returning to work, it is important to document the criteria used for selection and the process in which they return. Union settings may lead by seniority, while others by talent. Regardless, discrimination laws will be at the center point of the rehiring process, and documentation of the chosen methods will help support your process and prevent lawsuits.
  2. Meet expectations of employees, which might be beyond CDC guidelines. While it is crucial to ensure you are following all health and safety guidelines issued from federal organizations, such as the CDC and OSHA, and regional governments (read the most up-to-date Reopening New York guidelines), it’s important to understand that these guidelines may fall short of the standards and comfort levels of your employees. It is important to meet these expectations, to protect employees, and to accommodate their needs. Otherwise, you may have a higher risk of strikes, lawsuits, and unhappy employees.
  3. Understand the effectiveness of virtual work. Even when quarantine bans are lifted and select employees are able to return to work, it is important to know when it is necessary to have them return and when it is not. Consider the value of remote work in regard to safety and create a well-balanced schedule of when employees are able to work from home, versus when, if at all, they may need to be present in a physical office. Many employers are finding that virtual work has been more efficient and productive for their company.
  4. Know and understand your duty to accommodate. Under the ADA, you have the responsibility of maintaining reasonable accommodation for employees. This means that even after things begin to open up, some employees may feel unsafe to go into work if they have a compromised immune system or care for someone with a compromised immune system. You may be responsible for creating a plan for them to effectively work remotely, including providing access to the internet, technology, etc.
  5. Understand employee payment methods and how they may change. Know the ways to structure employee payments, particularly those who typically work on a salary. Tools to do this include percentage reduction, reverting an employee from salary to hourly, or supplementing the use of paid time off or vacation time.

For more advice and guidelines on this topic, watch the webinar “Returning to Work After COVID-19: Employment Planning and Managing a Changed Workforce” hosted by the Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) at Cornell University.

This panel discussion focuses on the legal and practical issues entrepreneurs should consider when creating recovery plans to re-engage their workforce. Moderated by me, featured panelists include Harry Katz, Professor of Collective Bargaining at the ILR School; Paul Wagner, Cornell School of Hotel Administration; and Ken Rother, Director of Rev: Ithaca Startup Works.

You can also view other webinars in CREA’s series focused on supporting startups through the COVID-19 pandemic.

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