Labor Secretary, SHRM President on Urgency to Safely Reopen Businesses

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland May 22, 2020
Scalia and Taylor

​Getting employees back on the job as quickly as possible is crucial for restoring the U.S. economy, but employers must take all reasonable precautions to keep them safe, agreed Eugene Scalia, U.S. labor secretary, and Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

In a recent webcast produced by the Northern Virginia Technology Council and the Consumer Technology Association, Scalia and Taylor were interviewed separately about responding to the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted government-mandated business closures across the country and led to the loss of at least 20.5 million jobs between mid-March and mid-April.

"There is a lot of hardship right now for American workers and families," Scalia said, "but also the possibility that we come out of this and get back to where we were not so long ago." He noted that 88 percent of the newly unemployed said their job cuts were temporary. "Our focus is to make that so and open as promptly as we can. The longer we take to reopen, the more of those bonds between employer and employee weaken and fall away," he said. "I want to help governors do it but, of course, it's got to be safe."

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

As states begin to reopen their economies, many business owners are wrestling with how to restore operations as fully as possible while protecting their employees and complying with all local, state and federal guidelines. 

Scalia reminded employers of their obligations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to maintain a workplace free of known hazards and noted that the agency has posted guidance materials to help businesses open and operate safely. "We are providing guidance and assistance but, where necessary, we're prepared to bring enforcement actions as well," he said.

As long as COVID-19, the illnesses caused by the coronavirus, continues to be a threat, Taylor said, workplaces are likely to change in these three areas:

  1. How people interact. The days of the handshake are over, he said, but he wondered if it's really possible to keep people six feet apart at all times. In this regard, transportation to and from work may be the greatest challenge, especially in densely populated areas where commuters rely on public transit.
  2. Attitudes toward remote work. Having the option to work from home was always considered a perk, he said, but being forced to work from home fulltime is a different matter. Many employees found they missed the culture and interaction of an office, while others discovered they liked remote work, but on their terms. "I think we're going to see it become more common," he said.
  3. The view on mental health. Until now, he said, "people really did not have a full appreciation of the impact of forced isolation. Now we're seeing employees under stress and really struggling."

Otherwise, Taylor said, the future of work might not look all that different from its past. "What I love about the American people is how resilient we are," he said. "We all thought after 9/11 that the world would change, people wouldn't fly anymore. Now we have some security mechanisms that weren't in place before, but we got back to flying and I think this too shall pass. We're going to have a new normal, but I don't think it's going to be that abnormal."

Fear of the Virus and Liability

Employers should be careful not only in preparing their workplaces but also while interacting with employees as they return, Taylor said, noting that each person might have different physical vulnerabilities or fears that should be considered separately. Some are in high-risk categories, with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure that make them more susceptible to the virus. Others may have a more generalized fear that doesn't necessarily exempt them from job duties.

"You can't just say 'I don't feel comfortable coming into work and I'm going to come when I'm ready.' It doesn't work that way," Taylor said. "First responders can't say they're not coming in. You can tell them certain jobs have to be done in person and we're going to protect you as much as we can."

Regarding health and safety, Taylor said, employers should be careful not to overpromise. "Words matter," he said. "Employers have to be very careful. You can say you're going to do your best [to protect workers from the virus], but you've got to carefully word that. If you make absolute commitments, it will undermine overall trust."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: COVID-19 Ready-Resource Tools and Samples]

When webcast moderator Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, asked about proposals to limit employer liability in cases where employees become ill, Taylor enthusiastically endorsed the idea. "We should be walking the halls of Congress saying we really do need to get some protection," Taylor said, adding that "if we open this door to litigation for everything it just won't work."

Shapiro also asked about the $600 weekly bonus added to unemployment payments as part of federal relief, which he said has encouraged some employees to stay home rather than return to work for less money. Scalia defended the pay boost as part of an effort to address an unprecedented situation but also noted that, "It's for people who don't have the ability to be at work. You can't quit your job to get unemployment insurance and, when you're called back, you can't say you'd rather stay home."

The Department of Labor's Office of the Inspector General received a significant budget increase to focus on abuses within the unemployment program, Scalia said, including any cases of refusal to return to work. "Remember this program does expire in July," he added. "I don't think the incentive is as powerful as some people fear."



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