How to Practice COVID-19 Safety When Reopening Your Retail Business

By Kylie Ora Lobell May 6, 2020
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shopper in store, cashier behind glass

​Brick-and-mortar retailers were already struggling before COVID-19. Now, as states slowly begin to reopen, these businesses must figure out how to keep workers and customers safe while simultaneously adhering to government guidelines and employment laws and trying to maximize profits.

"Most brick-and-mortar retailers have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic," said Adam Rosenthal, a partner in the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Sheppard Mullin and co-author of Employer's Guide to COVID-19 and Emerging Workplace Issues (Castle Publications, 2020). "As those retailers who were deemed nonessential during the stay-at-home orders begin the process of reopening, they will need to be prepared to face a number of unique employment law challenges."

For those reopening their retail stores soon, here are some tips to ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Follow Government-Mandated Health and Safety Guidelines

You can't open until you have the right procedures in place to protect employees and customers. Rosenthal said every state and some cities are likely to present their own standards for what retailers must do to safely reopen.

"These orders will contain a variety of employee-specific requirements that will run the gamut from donning [personal protective equipment such as] face masks and gloves, to social-distancing requirements, number of employees in a store at any one time based on the store's physical layout, prohibition on how many employees can congregate in certain areas, [a] ban on handshaking, etc."

Rosenthal recommended that employers check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for information.

Jonathan Segal, partner and managing principal at Duane Morris Institute, said, "What the CDC guidance recommends and what state laws require are designed to minimize risk not only to employees but to members of the public."

Send a Notice to Employees

Once your local and state government gives the green light to reopen and provides guidelines for doing so, share all relevant information with employees prior to their first day back.

Before Brad Schweig, vice president of operations at Sunnyland Outdoor Living in Dallas, partially reopened his store, he sent a letter to team members explaining that the store would follow CDC guidance for hand-washing, social distancing and enhanced cleaning.

The letter included health and safety guidelines for employees and guests, personal hygiene reminders, and rules for deliveries and in-home visits. For example, the letter told employees to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth; avoid collecting signatures for deliveries; and stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in close contact with someone who has lab-confirmed COVID-19.

Remember to ask if employees have any questions, suggestions or concerns—as Schweig did in his letter—so they know you value their opinion and care about their safety.

Anticipate Employee Rights Claims

According to Rosenthal, employers may legally require workers to wear protective equipment. Employers should ensure that they are in compliance with employment safety laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Rosenthal said retailers need to closely examine wage and hour policies and procedures and should consider consulting with an employment law attorney to ensure that any new COVID-19-related practices follow federal wage and hour laws. For instance, will employees be compensated for pre-shift temperature checks? Will rehired employees be paid at the same rate and have the same job duties they did before the pandemic? To what extent can retailers hire independent contractors to handle nonretail matters related to COVID-19, like extra janitorial support?

According to Segal, retailers also need to consider whether their employees have any special needs. "There may be an exception if someone has a respiratory condition and wearing the mask would create a breathing problem for them," he said. Additionally, "Some people are allergic to latex. I don't know if that allergy is enough to require an accommodation, so long as gloves meet CDC and/or state laws."

Clean Frequently, Offer Service from a Distance

Since disinfection is critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19, retailers will have to train employees to properly clean and sanitize merchandise and high-touch areas while they're working.

"Going one step further, retailers will need to train their employees on how to provide customer service while respecting social-distancing guidelines, which will invariably require new workflows and revised service essentials," Rosenthal said.

HR Should Step Up

The HR team will have a critical role to play when it comes to defining new ways of working and to developing necessary policies and procedures going forward, according to EY People Advisory Services Partner Betty Spetter.

"HR will need to take actionable steps to ensure the safety of employees and customers, including providing standardized learning to quickly enable store associates to be upskilled on employee- and customer-related safety and social-distancing requirements in the new normal," she said. "HR will also play a vital role in ensuring compliance with employment tax, benefit and compensation compliance and payroll-related requirements and inquiries."

Janine Williams, a co-owner of Platte Street Mercantile in Colorado, and CEO and founder of retail technology company Impulsify Inc., said HR will need to work closely with brand executives and team members to determine how to maximize customer experience with less interaction.

"They will need to seek ways they can make safety, social distancing, technology and hygiene a positive brand aspect rather than an awkward, somewhat unattractive message and retail experience," she said. "It is as though every employee is starting over when we come out of this."

Enforce New Policies

Segal said there should be consequences for employees who violate established guidelines. For example, someone who gets too close to another employee or a customer should receive a warning. If the employee continues to not follow the rules, he or she could be terminated. "I don't think one employee has the right to put another employee's life at risk," he said.

Acclimate to the New Normal

The retail experience will be different after businesses reopen. It is likely that employees will wear masks and gloves, facilities will undergo frequent sanitizing, and the number of customers allowed in stores will be limited.

In this environment, Segal said, it's critical to follow government safety guidelines to avoid the risk of being shut down. "There was a bit of an apocalypse for stores before COVID-19. If retailers don't pay real attention to this, it could be the nail in the coffin."

Those that stick to the guidelines and show concern for employees' and customers' well-being and safety are likely to succeed in the new normal.

"As retailers prepare to reopen," Rosenthal said, "they need to be able to demonstrate to their own employees first, and only then to the general public, that the store environment is safe and that the retailer has developed innovative and creative ways to deliver exemplary customer service."

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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