LEWISTON — One of your employees is married to a nurse working with coronavirus patients and the office is a little nervous?

Amy Dieterich Submitted photo

It may be tempting, but don’t order them to work from home.

Your employee won’t wear a mask after agreeing to the policy? You can send them home and discipline them for it.

Thinking of adopting health policies for customers? Don’t do it unless you’ll stick with it.

Four attorneys from Skelton, Taintor & Abbott offered a wide array of advice on Thursday for business owners now reopening their doors after closing at the start of the pandemic as part of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s ongoing HR Thursdays series.

“People are understandably worried about coming back to work,” said Amy Dieterich via Zoom. “The best thing employers can do is be responsive and open about all the safety precautions that they’re taking.”

She said they’re hearing a lot of questions around who to bring back to the office and when.

Ted Small Submitted photo

Dieterich cautioned businesses to think very broadly about which positions are needed to run an operation instead of specific employees’ age, health conditions or day care situations.

“Let them come to you, ‘I don’t feel safe coming back because of X,Y or Z’ or ‘I can’t come back because I’ve got a 3-year-old at home,'” she said. “It’s important to not make decisions about whether or not you bring employees back based on a perception that they’re either not going to be available or that they have certain risks, that is just a litigation risk in general.”

Stories circulated last month about some employees being called back to work and balking. “Employees were telling them, ‘Why bother? I’m getting more money now (collecting unemployment).’ That’s not really how it works,” Dieterich said.

While she directed company owners to the Maine Department of Labor for specific advice, “in general, when you are called back to work, you are no longer able to collect unemployment benefits. Employees might be more willing to come back if they’re educated about how that works.”

Where Ted Small sees “a lot of businesses falling down” is in creating policies and then not following them.

When businesses started opening back up, he was the first person in the shop one morning for a haircut.

Jordan Payne Hay Submitted photo

“Right at the front desk was a long checklist of questions they said every person that comes in the building has to answer and we can’t serve you unless you do,” Small said.

He answered them.

“While I was there, five or six more people came in and not one person was asked a question,” Small said. “The problem with that is you’re almost worse off adopting policies and procedures and not enforcing them than you are not adopting them at all . . . You’re creating standards that you’re expecting your place of business to live by and if you don’t follow those standards, that’s going to be one of the first things people point to when a problem comes up.”

Jordan Payne Hay suggested businesses have policies around tracking hours for employees working remotely.

“A big issue when we all started (was), ‘Well is my employee really working or is she walking the dog or is she doing laundry right now?'” Hay said.

Policies can tighten up expectations. Workplaces can also adopt policies around temperature checks and when someone needs to get tested for the coronavirus.

Jim Pross Submitted photo

“If an employee declines, it could be grounds for you to say, ‘Sorry, you can’t come to work and you need to take a day unpaid,'” Hay said. “We’re likely to see that after this summer, all employers are going to now be required to report incidents (to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) of someone getting sick with coronavirus or COVID-19 in their workplace. Right now, it’s limited to health care workers and emergency responders.”

Jim Pross said he does not anticipate a “big flood” of coronavirus-related workers compensation cases, though he understands there are some claims already filed with the Workers Compensation Board.

“It’s going to be very difficult for an employee, even with legal counsel, to establish that the COVID-19 infection ‘arose out of and in the course of’ their employment, and those really are the magic words,” Pross said. “Meeting that standard is going to be difficult except for maybe health care industries, perhaps, where there is heightened risk.”

He sees a greater potential for more comp claims related to working remotely and repetitive injuries, saying even he finds himself sometimes working on his couch or porch with a laptop.

“I don’t know how much you can really do to mitigate that risk short of trying to employ some ergonomic interventions in the home setting,” Pross said.

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