COVID-19: 'Return-to-Work' checklist for employers
India has forayed into Lockdown 3.0 until May 17 and we all are patiently waiting to know the new changes that Lockdown 4.0 might bring in. But the real question is – how long will this economic standstill last?
The health and economic consequences of COVID-19 coupled with other unknown variables, compelled the government to divide all districts within India in three zones namely – Red, Orange, and Green – each have varying levels of restrictions aimed at containing the spread the virus. As Green and Orange zones gear up to open factories, and offices, we cannot overlook the possibility of potential relapses and subsequent wave of infections.
This double-sided sword necessitates containment of virus on one side, and re-stabilization of the economy on the other, people and its government will be tip-toeing to curb the virus and recession simultaneously. Employers are a vital part of the chain and thus poses the question of - what is the 'Return-To-Work' checklist that an employer must comply with by checking off rules and regulations as propounded by the government to provide an overall healthy environment?
Legislation governing health and safety of employees at workplace are highly fragmented and have a limited scope and specific objectives. The Factories Act, 1948, provides for the health, safety and welfare of the workers in the manufacturing sector, The Mines Act, 1952, safety in mines, The Building and other Construction Workers (Regulation and the Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, provides for regulating the conditions of service of building and other construction workers, whereas the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966, provides for the safety, health and welfare measures for a particular class of occupation. Last year, a bill for consolidating these acts called Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2019 (the “Code”), was proposed to set duties of employers, and ensure a workplace free from hazards with high safety protocols.
In the wake of the ongoing pandemic, the proposal would require an overhaul. However, in the interim, the Ministry of Home Affairs exercising its power under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, has prescribed the ‘National Directives’ and ‘Standard Operating Procedures’ to ensure the health and safety of employees working at offices allowed to remain open during the lockdown. More or less an employer should incorporate all the legal compliance pertaining to its business together with the new guidelines specifically meant for the pandemic with some complicity and set as a base threshold, before allowing employees into offices.
At the outset, an individual or employer must be aware of what is going around in the society at large and further check on employee’s health, sanitization of office space, etc. The awareness pre-requisite may seem trivial, but its absence may have catastrophic consequences – health-wise and monetarily.
All employers should follow the guidelines and reports of WHO, the Indian government or their local authority to have a hold of the situation which is not only necessary for the wellbeing of its employees but also for understanding and planning business decisions and the next move to deal with it.
Moreover, employers should provide a guidance report prior to commencement of work in offices and provide necessary training, including employees engaged in security and housekeeping jobs. All awareness material including posters, presentations, etc. should be displayed at conspicuous places in workplace (including in regional language) as a reminder of safety and hygiene, and most importantly be consistent with rules laid down by the government.
Planning & Management
The next step would be meticulous planning and development of a well-devised course of action for the future. This includes setting up for a response team comprising of all key managerial personnel that would deal specifically with the new need of the hour.
Communication policies should be reviewed, reassessed, and revised that minimizes physical interactions and promotes social distancing. Telecommunication and work from home should be promoted wherever possible, which can be achieved efficiently through a reliable communication channel.
Further, travel policies should be revised limiting all non-essential travel for the time being. In offering flexibility, a business should look for alternative sources of creditors, suppliers, and markets to ensure an undisrupted supply chain in the future arising out of any contingency.
Basic Prevention Measures
As notified by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, the employer should ensure these primary preventive guidelines to ensure a safer workplace environment amidst the Corona chaos. Ensuring proper cleaning and frequent sanitization of the workplace, particularly of the frequently touched surfaces. In fact, employers must ensure a regular supply of hand sanitizers, soap, and running water in the washrooms and promote regular and thorough hand-washing by employees, contractors, and customers.
Advising all staff who are at higher risk i.e. older employees, pregnant women, and those with underlying medical conditions, to take additional precautions and preferably allow them to work remotely. It may be ensured that such employees are not exposed to any front-line work requiring direct contact with the public etc.
Compensation and other checklists
Employers must ensure clarity on the compensation front with employees from all rungs of the ladder. As per government direction, leaves taken by employees due to the lockdown shall not to be treated as leave and further discouraged employers from wage deductions and lay-offs. If an organization goes for alternate working days for two groups of employees the rest day of one group should not be treated as leave and thereby no deductions should be made. Although the delay in increment, giving bonuses, etc. may be carried out as per the financial-health of the business and sales forecast. Employers must ensure confidentiality of employee/s contracting the disease or taking sick leave to ensure no discriminatory practice and thereby mitigate panic at the workplace.
A widely conceived notion is that we are headed towards a new future where social distancing or remote offices may be the new normal. So much so that when right now we are talking about safety at the workplace and we would see before our eyes the very change in the definition of the workplace!
Naturally, employees are the key drivers in client servicing and relationships, thus service providers and service seekers alike must pay attention to such essential and unavoidable changes in the society and the legal framework governing it. Employers have a multitude of challenges to surmount within a short span of time and therefore the best checklist for an employer would be to make employees well aware of the situation at hand and take direct action at a lower level about dealing with situations contingent on it. Adoption of guidelines provided by WHO, our Central and local governments into our day-to-day etiquette would be the key to crisis mitigation and management.