COVID-19 from an HR Perspective

COVID-19 from an HR Perspective

In January 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of the coronavirus in Hubei Province, China to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. WHO stated that there is a high risk of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spreading to other countries around the world. Employers are advised to familiarise themselves with the risks and prevention of the virus within their organisation, as the same can have debilitating consequences on any organisation.

What is the Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV)A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people.  Detailed investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans. Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans. 

Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the virus can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. 

The Importance of Social Distancing

When someone who has COVID-19 coughs or exhales they release droplets of infected fluid. Most of these droplets fall on nearby surfaces and objects such as desks, tables or telephones. People could catch COVID-19 by touching contaminated surfaces or objects – and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. If they are standing within one meter of a person with COVID-19 they can catch it by breathing in droplets coughed out or exhaled by them. COVID-19 spreads in a similar way to the flu.

Most persons infected with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms and recover. However, some go on to experience serious illness and may require hospital care. The risk of serious illness rises with age; people over 40 seem to be more vulnerable than those under 40. People with weakened immune systems and people with conditions such as diabetes, heart, and lung disease are also more vulnerable to serious illness.

Considering the countries that have affected the most successful contingency plans to date, social distancing seems to be the most impactful preventative measure, which would yield exponential results in the combatting the virus. A recent article published by Tomas Pueyo with the following statistical report as a reference.

The rest of the regions in China were well coordinated by the central government, so they took immediate and drastic measures. This is the result:

Source: Coronavirus: Why you must act now. 

Practical ways to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in your Workplace

Apart from the standard hygiene practices, also apply the following:

  • Increase cleaning routines and ensure that the detergents used are of a disinfectant nature;
  • Instruct cleaners to regularly clean and disinfect headsets, telephones, desks, tables, computers, keyboards and all objects which are used by multiple individuals such as biometric systems, doorknobs and handles, elevator buttons, etc.;
  • Do not use a single towel for everyone to use when drying their hands after they have washed it; and
  • Have alcohol or disinfectant wipes or hand sanitiser available in all meeting rooms and boardrooms and if possible before and after each meeting disinfect the air with a disinfectant air spray.
  • Practice and promote hygienic behaviour by cleaning surfaces and objects after use (i.e. boardroom table, phone, remote).
  • Clean biometric scanners throughout the day and If possible, disable the biometric system until the threat of the COVID-19 virus subsides or is eliminated.
  • Ensure that hand sanitizers are located in the area of work, not at the entrance to the workplace. Therefore, Employees would open the doors and then disinfect their hands to continue working in the place of work.
  • Avoid shaking hands or coming into close contact with colleagues, practice different methods of greeting such as waiving to the person.
  • Use a tissue to cough or sneeze and where tissues are not available, cough or sneeze into your flexed elbow area.
  • Ensure that all meeting rooms are open and well ventilated.

When meetings take place, track attendance by recording their name and surname, telephone number and which meeting room that was used, to ensure rapid response if someone is potentially identified as having been infected.

Create awareness in meetings that should anyone be tested positive for  COVID-19 within 14 days of the meeting to telephonically contact your Company immediately where after HR to notify the South African Red Cross Society representative.

Avoid face to face meetings where possible and utilise other electronic applications such as Skype, ZOHO or telephone calls instead.

An Employee displaying any of the following combined symptoms should not report for duty and should consult a medical practitioner:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath

Limit or suspend group meetings as far as operationally possible.

Limit public transportation. When travelling carry a journal with you and detail, with the approximate times, your flights, transportation used and all contact points (airports, restaurants, restrooms, convenience stores etc.) so that you can trace back your whereabouts if necessary

I.N.F.O.R.M.U.S. Protocol

INFORM US stands for – Identify, Neutralise, Familiarise, Organise, Respond, Manage, Understand & Safety, which is a protocol that can be deployed in combatting the Covid-19 infections.

Identify

  • Be vigilant when dealing with staff members or visitors at your offices to identify and report any potential risk relating to COVID-19. Keep your colleagues accountable.

Neutralise

  • If an Employee displays symptoms generally associated with the virus, immediately contain the situation by asking such person to notify their manager and to go home and seek medical attention.
  • Ensure that this area is frequently cleaned and sanitised to ensure that there isn’t any further contamination or exposure to other staff.

Familiarise

  • Gather as much information telephonically as you can from the identified individual/s such as:
  • When the symptoms started;
  • Who they have come into contact within the last 48 hours;
  • Any meeting they had in the last 48 hours and who were present at those meetings; and

Organise

  • Instruct the identified individual/s to vacate the premises and to quarantine themselves at home while monitoring their health, and to avoid any unnecessary contact with other people.
  • Instruct the Employee to seek immediate medical assistance and report back telephonically or electronically on prognosis after consultation with the Doctor.

Respond

  • If confirmation is received that the identified individual/s tested positive for COVID-19, all individual/s who had come into contact with the infected employee within the offices should be notified immediately and sent home for self-quarantine and for them to monitor their health and check for any symptoms, as well as get tested for the virus.
  • HR to Notify South African Red Cross Society representative.
  • HR to record such absence (in the case of an employee) as paid leave.

Manage

  • Staff will be concerned about their wellbeing, and it will be essential to manage their expectations on the new developments.
  • Ensure sufficient material (i.e. face masks, sanitizers and temperature measures are in place to attend to any further situation as it may arise proactively.
  • Ensure that all relevant levels of management are informed about the findings and situation.

Understand

  • It will be a natural response by employees to panic once you have a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the workplace so ensure that you have a dedicated response team that can deal with such situations as they might arise.
  • Employees may request to rather stay at their homes for the incubation period (symptoms typically appear between 2 and 5 days after exposure) to ensure that they are safe, thus have contingency plans in place.
  • It will be essential to be open and transparent after you had a confirmed case as the staff would want reassurance that the employer has the situation under control to their best ability.

Safety

  • The safety of staff is the main priority, early detection of possible symptoms can protect our staff, thus the importance to always be vigilant and to create awareness.

Practical Recommendations

Hygiene

  • All boardroom sliding doors and windows to be kept open.
  • Quick air and surface cleaning to be done after every meeting.
  • Hand sanitizers and tissues to be placed in every boardroom.

Awareness and prevention

The following message to be attached to meeting invites:

Dear colleague. Under the Covid-19 protocol, we hereby kindly request that you monitor your health for signs of fever, coughing and shortness of breath. If you display any of these symptoms before or 14 days after the meeting, kindly notify the organiser of the meeting and seek medical attention immediately as you could pose a risk to others.

Obtain goodie bags for employees containing a thermometer and hand sanitizer and communicate this drive with the fun infographic attached.

Employees displaying the following symptoms should not report for work, alternatively to be sent home immediately on paid sick leave, alternatively paid annual leave. Employees to consult a doctor and only to return to work upon submitting a doctors letter.

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath

Considering international standards, suspend all business flights until further notice. If not possible, implement a travel policy addendum.

High leave balance staff and vulnerable employees such as those over the age of 60, those with current illnesses, and those with current chronic medical conditions to be sent on annual leave and self quarantine as a priority if possible, considering the current high leave balance protocol.

Department heads to consider work from home protocols for their teams as far as reasonably practical as well as minimum staff required to keep their divisions operational.

Guest register to be kept for every boardroom. At the bottom of the register, notify all parties that they should contact the company if they are infected with Covid-19 in the next 14 days.

Plan resourcing strategies such as the re-allocation of staff, the splitting of teams, the rotation of in-office/home-working arrangements or the cross-training of staff who perform business-critical functions, to minimise the risks of disruption if large numbers of staff, or key staff, are absent;

Apply due consideration of the following:

  • Consider Force Majeure contractual terms.
  • Manage contractual risks and evaluate the potential implications for your customer and supply chain contracts. Review how COVID-19 will affect your ability to perform your contractual obligations (either directly or due to issues in your supply chain). Assess what rights you might have if your counterparty is unable to perform. 
  • Payments – can they be effected remotely?
  • Guarantees/indemnities/performance bonds/liquidated damages – is there a risk of these being called on if obligations are not performed? 
  • Financial arrangements and Financial ratios – are these adversely affected by historical or forecast loss of operational revenue or changes in asset valuations?
  • Ensure access to payroll, finances and banking at all times.
  • Consider and review existing and potential insurance claims or cover.
  • Consider broader business risks such as deviating from or halting“business and usual”.

Legal Obligations of Employers

Section 8 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993 (OHSA) requires every employer to provide and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of its employees.

This duty includes (i) taking steps to eliminate or mitigate any hazard or potential hazard, before resorting to personal protective equipment; (ii) providing information, instructions, training and supervision that may be necessary to ensure the health and safety of employees at work; and (iii) enforcing such measures as may be necessary in the interests of health and safety. Section 9 extends these duties towards persons other than those in employment affected by the employer’s activities.

The General Safety Regulations published under the OHSA prohibit an employer from permitting a person to enter a workplace where the health and safety of such a person are at risk. 

Employers may accordingly impose rules on their employees to ensure a safe working environment and, in addition, it may place conditions on entry into its premises. Employers may exclude persons from their premises if they do not abide by those rules. It is on this basis that entry to building sites may be subject to the wearing of hard hats and other protective clothing.

In light of Covid-19, a legitimate entry requirement may be requiring the disclosure of recent international travel and subjecting individuals to a temperature test, if necessary. The temperature test itself should be as un-invasive as possible, and screeners as opposed to thermometers placed in the ear or mouth, are advisable.

Legal Implications

The Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, 1993 (COIDA) protects the employer from delictual liability in respect of employees who contract illness during the course and scope of her/ his employment. An employee who contracts an occupational disease can claim from the Compensation Fund without having to prove the employer’s negligence.

However, if the employer was, in fact, negligent, the employee may receive increased compensation, and the cost of such increased compensation may be passed on to the employer in the form of increased assessment rates.

COIDA also only protects employers against claims arising out of injuries or diseases contracted by their employees in the course and scope of employment. Customers or clients who contract an infection due to their interaction with the workplace would have to institute a civil claim, and the normal delictual principles will apply. Employers will need to strike the correct balance in implementing measures that are appropriate for managing the health and safety of the workplace.

In anticipation of work stoppages, Employers are advised to consult affected Employees in terms of short time agreements as a retrenchment avoidance strategy. Consider alternative financial alleviation such as halting retirement fund contributions (Except for death and disability)

Frequently Asked Questions

If you notice someone being ill and displaying any of the 3 critical symptoms, can you send them home and insist on a medical letter? Yes, send them home immediately, and paid sick leave to be utilised. Sick leave will be used until the employee can submit a doctors letter stating that they may report back for duty. The regulations of the BCEA to be applied concerning pay for sick leave. 

Should the Company insist on leave as a precautionary measure, such as following voluntary quarantine measures, what leave should be granted? Special paid leave to be granted considering the circumstances.

What if an Employee refuses to come to work? Employees remain obligated to go to work unless instructed otherwise by their employers. Employees who refuse to go to work must have a valid reason for their absence. The mere presence of the Coronavirus in South Africa does not constitute a valid reason to stay away from work. Employees who stay away from work without a valid reason may face disciplinary action.

What if sick leave is exhausted? An employer is not required to pay employees for sick leave taken when the sick leave entitlement has been exhausted. However, we recommend that authorised unpaid leave be considered. In those instances, the employee must claim illness benefits in terms of the Unemployment Insurance Act 63 of 2001 (UIA). In terms of section 20 of the UIA, a contributor is entitled to the illness benefits contemplated in the UIA for any period of illness if, inter alia, the contributor is unable to perform work on account of illness. Refer to https://www.ufiling.co.za/uif/illness-benefits for more information.

What does self-isolation / quarantine mean? Staying home is a precautionary measure to protect those around you – your family, friends, colleagues – from possibly contracting COVID-19. Self-isolation is an effective measure of prevention. We are asking people to take simple, common-sense steps to avoid close contact with other people as much as possible like you would with the seasonal flu virus. We know it may be a stressful time, but taking these measures will help protect you, your family, and all of South Africa from COVID-19 and other common infectious diseases.

As much as possible, you should limit your contact with people other than the family members/companions you travelled with. You should avoid having visitors to your home, but it is okay for friends, family or delivery drivers to drop off food and supplies. 

If you are in a home where the others who live with you haven’t travelled you should minimise close contact with them by avoiding situations where you have face-to-face contact closer than 2 metres for more than 15 minutes. The other household residents do not need to self-isolate provided these precautions are followed.

You should not share dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, pillows or other items with other people in your home. After using these items, you should wash them thoroughly with soap and water, place them in the dishwasher for cleaning or wash them in your washing machine.

How to Stay Informed

Find the latest information from WHO on where the COVID-19 virus is spreading:

https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports/

Advice and guidance from WHO on COVID-19

https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019 

https://www.epi-win.com/

Our Recommendations

A holistic approach seems the most logical approach, whereby communication and social distancing seems to be the most practical steps which will yield exponential results. Companies should also consider worst case scenarios should an employee testing positive, and the operational contingencies that would have to be initiated thereafter.

** Please note that the content and suggestions contained in this article are for information purposes only and are not for the purposes of providing comprehensive legal advice. **