Employees Look to HR to Evaluate COVID-19 Data Before Reopening

By Nicole Lewis July 20, 2020
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woman overseeing charts

​When national staffing and recruitment firm Addison Group began putting in place the necessary measures to reopen the company's offices in Texas, Peg Buchenroth, senior vice president of human resources, relied on local, state and federal data to make the transition.

The company's employees switched to remote work during the week of March 16. Since then, Buchenroth and her colleagues have been monitoring coronavirus cases in Texas, where the numbers are changing fast.  

Recent data from Texas health authorities demonstrates why it's important for human resource managers to follow infection and hospitalization rates in different geographies.  

According to Texas Department of State Health Services data, nearly 75,000 people tested positive for the coronavirus in the first week of June and more than 1,800 people died of COVID-19. As of July 19, nearly 4,000 people had died from COVID-19 in the state, and the death toll is expected to rise further as reported cases have climbed to over 330,000.

Texas Health and Human Services has posted a warning on its website: "Please note that all data are provisional and subject to change. Probable cases are not included in the total case numbers."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began clearing the way for businesses to reopen in May to restart the state's economy but had to roll back those plans after COVID-19 deaths began to rise. In the midst of this, the Addison Group reopened its San Antonio/Houston offices on May 4, its Dallas location on May 18 and its Austin facility on May 20. The company closed its Texas offices for the July 4 holiday and has kept them closed as it considers what to do next.

"While we successfully opened our Texas offices in May for employees who wanted to return to in-person work, we've decided to close these locations and will monitor the situation in case we need to reassess," Buchenroth said. "The safety of our employees remains Addison Group's top priority, and we will continue to leverage federal, state and local data to inform any future decisions." 

She said employees who return to the office will need to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, such as wearing a mask and maintaining 6 feet of physical distance from others.

"We want to make sure that employees feel safe when they return to the office," Buchenroth said.

She added that the company takes into consideration the many factors that can influence an employee's decision to return to the office, including child care needs, elder care responsibilities, and serious underlying medical conditions that put individuals at high risk of developing a severe illness from COVID-19.

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Using Data to Inform Reopening

As more businesses reopen, employers will have to decide if going to the office is safe based on the data received from local health authorities. Insight from that data will determine how employers will design their workspaces to allow for adequate social distancing within an office, how many workers will be allowed in the office at a time and whether remote work will continue for the foreseeable future.

John Dooney, an HR Knowledge Advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management, said he has noticed an increase in the number of inquiries from HR professionals about new federal, state and local measures and how to safely reopen businesses. He added that while health officials have gained a better understanding of the coronavirus during the past four months, there is still a lot more to learn.

"The pandemic is evolving, and we haven't had the luxury of time to get the information we need," Dooney said. "I think it's important for HR managers to continually review data from authoritative resources."

HR needs to be aware of the changes states are making as they reverse previous decisions on reopening their economies given increasing coronavirus infections and death rates in states like Arizona, Florida and Texas. The current crisis, Dooney said, should prompt HR professionals to be more involved with their senior leadership teams in the decision-making process.

"HR executives should work with senior managers to come up with the best ideas that protect their employees," Dooney advised. "The leadership team should be looking at not only how to maintain the business, but also how to implement adequate protections." 

Employers' responses will also depend on the work environment at each company. Hospitals, supermarkets, pharmacies and delivery services, for example, need employees at their worksites; many knowledge-based businesses, however, are better-suited to rely on remote workers.

Gavin Morton, head of people and financial operations at HR.com, said as discrepancies arise in the actual number of coronavirus infections and deaths caused by COVID-19, employees will want to know that their employers have seen the data, considered it carefully and are concerned about workers' safety.

"We all want to know exactly what's going on, but it is very difficult for medical professionals and coroners to quickly ascribe deaths to COVID-19 or other causes," Morton said. "It is logical that there are both more cases and more infections than are being reported, since the testing numbers are still relatively low, and we may not know for years what the true impact has been."

Morton added that employers are in a powerful position to reduce their employees' anxiety. "Employers need to read carefully to understand what the reliable facts are and use them to inform their employees rather than alarm them. Clarity, calm and honesty go a long way," he said.

Morton said HR professionals should consider and educate the leadership team in two key areas:

  • How this information impacts the business and employees. Some data could have little to no impact on a company, depending on such factors as location and type of business, while other information could have a severe impact. An outbreak of cases in a city four hours away may not worry the organization's local employees, but if someone's parents live in that city, he or she may be personally very concerned.
  • Employee sentiment. It is critical to understand how employees are feeling and how new data can affect their confidence in their safety.

Contact tracing, new coronavirus cases, new hospitalizations, and increases or drops in the number of people dying from COVID-19 will be critical data that will contribute to HR managers' planning.

Human resource professionals should remember, too, that the data are interrelated.

For example, Morton noted that while an increase in deaths reported is alarming, it doesn't necessarily mean that there are more cases; similarly, falling death rates may not mean that transmission today is low. Information about deaths is only one piece of the puzzle.

Developing measures to secure the safety and encourage the performance of employees during the second half of the year won't be easy, especially if there is suspicion that federal, state and local information on the COVID-19 crisis isn't accurate.

"The numbers are really important, and companies need to pay close attention to information which impacts their employees and their customers," Morton said. "While the data can help guide their decisions, HR leaders and company leaders still need to interpret the data. This is true for any information, and so the uncertainty around death reporting is no different. Company leaders need to use their best judgment based on their knowledge of their business, employees and customers."

Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami. She covers business, technology and public policy.

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