Creating a Business Response Plan to COVID-19

Businesses in the state are in uncharted territory regarding how COVID-19 will affect their operations and, more importantly, their employees. With the continuing spread of the disease, some companies are restricting employee travel and cancelling events, while others are making arrangements to have employees work from home. Two days ago, as an example, Bayer announced that its Whippany and Morristown sites would remain closed until further notice, impacting 2,300 employees who were recommended to work from home. The company was the first large employer in the state to make such a move.

While global companies may have gained experience in handling illnesses due to past worldwide outbreaks such as SARs, MERs or H1N1, with response plans already in place (but perhaps being revised due to the new COVID-19 pandemic), small businesses certainly need guidance now if they are creating a response plan from scratch.

These businesses can turn to the tips and guidance being provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and, here in New Jersey, the State Department of Health and the New Jersey Department of Labor for information and appropriate action steps to take in dealing with COVID-19 (links to websites are provided at the end of this article).

Regarding the development of a business response plan, John Ho, chair of the OSHA practice group in the labor and employment department and partner at the New York City office of Cozen O’Connor (the law firm also has offices at One Gateway Center in Newark), says that “given what we are hearing about COVID-19, you can’t think of a better time to create a business response plan than now.”

While a large corporation will have a number of departments working on a response plan, such as human resources, operations and health and safety for example, a smaller company’s response plan can be overseen by the office manager. For that person, Ho explains it all could start with some common-sense observations as explained by OSHA. “It’s things like training your supervisor to look for signs of COVID-19 such as cough, shortness of breath and fever. You want to create policies that actively encourage people to recognize the symptoms and then stay home,” he says.

With the inevitable increase of COVID-19 cases, Ho says, “You also want to encourage your employees to use their leave time liberally so they can stay at home. Some employers are waiving healthcare certification requirements (a doctor’s note, for example) and others are advancing sick leave [days].”

Another major part of the response plan is gauging employees’ abilities to work from home or remotely. “One of the things you might do is conduct a survey to see how many employees have remote access to their office computers and data,” he says. “Do they have internet connection? Can they access email, use their phones, etc.? You must gather that data to make the determination.”

Asked about which employees should work from home and which should remain at plant or office operations, Ho says the answers all depend on specific situations. “If you are in a target hot spot like Seattle or New York City, then your response should be more aggressive than if you work in a Connecticut suburb. Additionally, if the majority of your workforce takes mass transit, that certainly indicates a different response than if more of your employees drive to work.”

The question of working remotely also depends on the industry. For example, a manufacturing company definitely needs people on the manufacturing floor. Ho recommends that these companies stagger their workforce via different shifts so that all employees are not gathered in one place at one time. He also says that altered starting times prevents employees who use mass transit from taking buses and trains during peak travel periods, resulting in less population exposure. Finally, he advises that manufacturing and other businesses train existing employees on another job functions in case workers in other functions becomes ill.

Finally, he says, “A company may have to reduce its manufacturing objectives temporarily. I know this will mean a hit to the bottom line, but it should be given careful consideration. This is all part of the process.”

The common question employers are currently asking Ho regarding employees working from home revolves around pay. “They are asking, ‘If we send people home, do we have to pay them?’”

He responds, “A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck … this could impact how they pay their mortgages. If you have a policy that says you are going to send people home and not pay them, then you are potentially discouraging employees from monitoring their [sickness] and forcing them to come to work though they may not be feeling well.” This, of course, opens the potential for others to contract the illness.

Additionally, the issue of pay also depends on federal and state family and sick leave policies, and a company’s sick time policy.

Unfortunately, there are no right or wrong answers to this question, Ho says. “Right now, the situation isn’t bad enough where clients are calling me up saying their workforce has been affected, but obviously, the COVID-19 case numbers seem to be getting worse.”

He says that OSHA and the CDC have been doing a good job in publishing information and guidance for businesses on how to deal with COVID-19. Below are the links to their related websites, as well as links to information being provided by the New Jersey Department of Health and New Jersey Department of Labor:



 NJ Department of Health:

 New Jersey Department of Health email: [email protected]

New Jersey Department of Labor:

To access more business news, visit NJB News Now.

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