Employers Grapple with Teleworking Decisions, Fairness

Theresa Agovino By Theresa Agovino March 18, 2020
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woman works from home

​It seems that every hour, another company announces that its employees will work from home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus—although working remotely is not an option for everyone. 

For example, roughly two-thirds of the 700 employees at the Community Healthcare Network need to be onsite to provide patient care. But what about the administrative staff who may be able to work from home? Should they be given the opportunity?

Kenneth Meyer, the chief human resources officer at the New York City-based network of 12 clinics, has been grappling with the question. "Will they have the resources they need to perform their jobs?" he wondered. He's not sure that the employees have the computers and Internet connections they'll need. "We're a nonprofit. We don't have computers and scanners just lying around," he added.

And there's another element to consider: Is it fair to let some employees work from home while others labor in an environment where they are more at risk of contracting the coronavirus? "Staff morale definitely enters that equation. It isn't the governing the factor, though," Meyer explained.

Deciding whether to let employees work from home amid the pandemic isn't easy for many firms. Health care providers and manufacturers require most people to be onsite to keep operations running. Yet even for companies where it is technically possible for employees to work remotely, there are other considerations that must be addressed. While such companies are often OK with some people working from home, they lack the systems and protocols to keep the business running smoothly when there is no one at the main office.

Last week, there was significant disagreement among senior executives at software maker Betterworks about whether to close the company's offices temporarily, according to Diane Strohfus, Betterworks' chief human resources officer. Some favored shuttering the offices, while others argued it wasn't necessary because the coronavirus situation was overblown.

"Opinions were all over the map, but we decided to err on the side of safety and caution," Strohfus said. The company decided to make the work-from-home policy mandatory so that people who really wanted to stay home didn't feel pressured to go to the office by those who chose to work there. She added that many of the employees at the Redwood City, Calif.-based company have infants and school-age children, so allowing people to work from home made sense when school and day care closings are happening all over the country.

"I told managers to expect more distractions," Strohfus said.

Strohfus added that even though it's technically easy for the company's employees to work from home, for a firm accustomed to personal interactions, there were still adjustments to be made. To improve communication, channels were added to Slack, a messaging platform used by Betterworks employees, and managers are organizing video meetings to keep employees connected.

"We encourage [videoconferencing]. People can feel your personality when they see your face," Strohfus explained.

Companies don't have to let people work from home, said Tracy M. Billows, a partner in the Chicago office of law firm Seyfarth Shaw who specializes in labor issues. However, she added that if someone is pregnant or has a disability or medical condition that affects his or her immune system, companies must make some accommodations.

Billows said companies need to follow existing laws and coronavirus-specific directions from institutions like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when creating work-from-home policies amid the pandemic. Beyond that, companies need to account for their individual circumstances. Has an employee been infected? Is the company located in a virus hot spot where schools are closed? Does the work need to be done onsite? Companies must balance the safety and security of their workers with what the business needs to continue to operate, she explained.

"There are no one-size-fits-all answers," Billows said.

As the virus spread, Elyse Dickerson thought about how to treat the 10 hourly employees who work in her health care company's manufacturing facility and do not have sick leave. Last week, she told them she would pay them for two weeks if they were feeling ill or needed to care for a family member.

"If they don't get paid, they can't feed their families or pay their rent," said Dickerson, co-founder and chief executive officer of Fort Worth, Texas-based Eosera, a maker of ear care products. She told her other 10 employees that they could work from home but might be called in to help in the manufacturing facility if someone is out sick.

Dickerson doesn't know what the company will do if area schools close, although that won't be a problem for most of her employees. She said employees could bring their children to work if necessary. "I suppose we could put on a movie," she said.

And if an employee contracts the virus, she said the company would have the facility deep-cleaned within 24 hours. She has two months' worth of product in reserve in case there are any production delays.

"We already bleach down the facility every night," she said. "You could eat off the floors."

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