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How Colorado Businesses Can Keep Employees Safe When Reopening

Matt Bloom
A Starbucks cafe in Loveland with a "drive-thru open" sign.

On Monday, the state of Colorado moved into a new phase of managing the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Jared Polis is lifting the statewide stay-at-home order and transitioning to one called "safer-at-home," in which certain non-essential businesses are allowed to re-open.

Many employers are now making decisions about how to re-open safely. Tina Harkness, the director of the Employers’ Council’s Northern Regional Office, joined Colorado Edition to talk about what the transition to safer at home means for business owners.

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: What are some dos and don’ts for small business owners as we transition from stay-at-home to safer-at-home?

Tina Harkness: I would recommend that small businesses assess their workplace as it is currently, knowing that we are not coming back to business as usual. There will be a new normal. We will have more specific guidance on what safer-at-home means for Colorado. But businesses also need to look at their local guidance and what requirements might be in place even longer than the end of Colorado’s stay-at-home order.

Once they’ve had a chance to get the lay of their workplace, then they can start making decisions about how to keep employees safe coming back in.

They also should be prepared for employees who may not feel comfortable coming back right away. What are they going to do in those sorts of circumstances to reassure those people that they are taking all the recommended steps to keep them safe as they come back in to work?

If offices are allowed to have up to 50 percent of their workforce come back, what is appropriate and fair when deciding who does come back? Can offices legally and morally prioritize keeping older employees or those with underlying health conditions at home?

It’s going to be individual to the workplace. Individuals at higher risk should and can be looked at differently depending on where that risk comes from. If it comes from a medical issue or a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, businesses have always had to treat those cases as unique and do individualized analysis of what’s needed there.

What about employees with children but no childcare or school? Can they ask to continue working remotely?

Yes, they can. As the school year ends - even though it has already for the most part ended - what happens in the summer? For employers who have fewer than 500 employees, they are still subject to the Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which does require paid sick leave and extended family and medical leave for employees who are not able to work and not able to telework due to having kids at home that are out of school and daycare.

The place of care definition under the FFCRA is broader than just school. It also includes daycare and summer camps that we would as parents normally use in place of school in the summertime.

Many business owners are anxious to get back to things, but also really want to be supportive of their people. How can businesses ease the anxiety for employees about coming back to work?

We need to reorient people to our workplaces. This is almost a new onboarding process – what is this new normal working environment? Employers need to make sure that they’re outlining and communicating to employees what they have done to comply with the public health recommendations, CDC guidance and guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to stem the contagiousness of COVID-19 and to protect them as they come back to work.

If a company’s workforce returns to work, and someone gets sick, could an employer be legally liable?

With coronavirus particularly, it’s difficult to show that the employee got it from work. Mostly the causation has been found in employees working in healthcare, where they’re working directly with infected individuals. But because we’re going out to a limited extent in the community, it would be very difficult to determine what caused that person to get COVID-19.

There would have to be some specific facts that pointed to the workplace for the employer to ultimately end up being liable. However, employers should not hang their hats on that. They should be doing everything that’s recommended to avoid that problem.

What is the mood around being allowed to re-open? Are people you’re talking with excited? Or more nervous about moving to the next stage?

It’s really mixed. From a business perspective there is a desire to get back to business - for the revenue it produces and the normalcy it provides.

But I’m still hearing a fair amount of apprehension, and I think that’s wise. We’re not coming back to business as usual. We’re coming back to very limited and regimented workplaces that are necessary to keep us safe.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for April 27th. You can find the full episode here .

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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