Common Areas talks with a lawyer
In this constantly-evolving business environment, companies have a lot to consider. We wanted to understand how businesses should be thinking about their legal obligations to customers, employees, and other stakeholders right now, so we reached out to Christine Pham, a partner at Rosenberg Martin Greenberg, LLP, for help. Pham helped us understand what she calls the “three Ps.”
CA: Our big question for you is about what businesses should be doing right now to keep employees safe while maintaining operations. What are their legal obligations?
Pham: Businesses are facing the challenging task of modifying operations to meet business needs while striving to protect the health and safety of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. The investment in employee health is essential – a business cannot run without employees. Although legal obligations and industry standards may be rapidly evolving, a company should consider taking a three-pronged approach to COVID-19 safety: People, Policy and Place.
CA: Those are the Three Ps?
Pham: Yes. First of all, People, which in this case refers to “Workplace Distancing.”
To the greatest extent possible, a company should consider workplace distancing: a conscious effort to provide physical distance among employees. The goal is to reduce the number of people in the workplace at any one time. Anyone who can work from home should be sent home to work remotely.
CA: What about people who have to go to work?
Pham: If some or all employees must work in the workplace, the company should consider whether alternatives means of separation are viable. Perhaps employees could sit at every other workstation or machine, the company could re-arrange workspaces, or consider repurposing conference rooms for additional workspaces. The company could also consider splitting its work force into groups, and having the groups work on alternative days.
Yet another alternative could allow for flexible hours, such that half the force works early and the other works late. The company also should consider replacing in-person meetings with telephone conferences or videoconferencing, and limit access to cafeterias, break rooms and kitchens as appropriate to the size of the workforce and workspace.
CA: What do appropriate policies look like? And how should companies implement new policies right now?
Pham: A company should consider creating a COVID-19 policy aimed at healthy practices in order to reduce the spread of the virus. The policy should make it clear that any employee who is sick or showing symptoms of COVID-19 must stay at home. It should also address employees who are healthy but have a condition that places them at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and those employees with a household member who is sick or showing symptoms of COVID-19.
CA: What should the policy look like for employees who are still coming to work?
Pham: For those workers, the policy could also address the following practices:
- Social distancing. Communicate via phone, email, text, or other electronic means rather than in person.
- Frequent hand washing.
- Avoiding touching of faces, eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Coughing/Sneezing etiquette – covering the mouth and nose with a tissue and/or using the inside of an elbow.
- Cleaning frequently-touched objects and surfaces such as workstations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, and doorknobs.
- Avoiding use of another’s phone, desk, office, or other work tools and equipment, when possible.
- Cleaning office equipment such as jointly used printers, fax machines, stamp machines, etc. before and after use.
CA: Something we’re interested in as a company is helping property managers and business owners figure out how to keep their people safe and healthy.
Pham: A company should consider what it can do to maintain a healthy and clean workplace. It could discuss increased daily cleaning requirements with its janitorial/cleaning services to make sure cleaning is performed with CDC/EPA recommended disinfectants; it can also mandate that hand soap and hand sanitizer dispensers are filled at all times, and handrails and doorknobs be disinfected.
A discussion could also address whether any deep-cleaning of the workplace is necessary, and if so, how often. Companies should consider whether to increase ventilation and the percentage of outdoor air that circulates in the workspace. To the extent possible, the company should consider placing more tissue boxes, hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes throughout the workplace.
In response to the changing business landscape, Common Areas has released a COVID-19 Prevention Checklist and Action Plan System, a cloud-based software solution to help businesses adapt, based on OSHA and CDC guidance. We want businesses of every shape and size to return to work as soon and safely as possible, so we’re providing this solution free for a limited time. Learn more here.
Christine Pham is a partner at Rosenberg Martin Greenberg, LLP. Christine practices complex civil litigation. She represents individuals and companies in business, employment, real estate, insurance and professional liability matters. Rosenberg Martin Greenberg is a full-service business law firm in Baltimore, Maryland that advises entrepreneurs and organizations on an extensive range of issues that drive their success. Their core practice areas are business litigation, real estate, business planning & transactions, commercial lending, tax & wealth planning, creditors’ rights and tax controversy. Our attorneys are committed to providing our clients exceptional, efficient service that makes a difference.