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Pandemic Impacts HR Issues

Awareness, virus mitigation efforts, and support for workers should all be areas of focus when it comes to key human resource issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, various experts say.  

To support virus mitigation efforts such as social distancing, many companies and organizations have either requested or mandated that employees to work at home. However, some IT specialists say that employers should be aware that the surge of remote worker traffic can strain network access connections and their security components to the breaking point, according to Ken Ammon, chief strategy officer for OPAQ, a digital security firm.

“With entire companies mandating that employees work from home, networks must support hundreds or even thousands of remote connections,” Ammon said. He offered the example of a corporate remote access connection that is equipped to handle 1GB of traffic being overwhelmed by hundreds of workers downloading and uploading data from home. Some companies may have to add additional bandwidth to keep their operations going, or suffer a breakdown, he said.  

In addition to causing bandwidth problems, remote work can also strain security filters that inspect traffic entering and leaving company data centers. And computers and other devices used by employees at home can be under protected, and be a security risk, Ammon said.

Of course, not all employees are working at home; millions are still at work. For example, in the United States, home improvement chains Lowes and Home Depot, which each have more than 1,500 stories, both said this week they were open for business. And major manufacturers like Boeing and Merck were still operating, the New York Times reported. 

Given this, a few HR experts at SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, conducted a webinar briefing last week on key HR issues for employers.

“The headlines were that this was a healthcare crisis. Over time we've come to understand that this is a global people crisis,” Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM's president and CEO, said at the briefing. The briefing also included Dr. Jay C. Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The current virus mitigation strategy that public health officials are asking people to focus on—including reducing contact with other people as much as possible—is aimed at slowing the spread of the virus so that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed, Butler said. But the strategy it is also important for companies, so they can absorb the impact of absenteeism due to coronavirus pandemic more gradually.

In this, supervisors can play a very important role in virus prevention by actively encouraging sick employees to stay home. “Even if someone is mildly ill, this is not a good time to try and tough it out because that's the kind of thing that can lead to spread in the community,” Butler said.

There is some epidemiological evidence that a person could be infectious before onset of symptoms, so employees should be mindful of staying home—even if they are only slightly feeling they are coming down with something—for more than one day. “This is probably not a 24-hour bug,” Butler said.  

Another related action employers and HR administrators can do here is review their policies regarding time off and sick leave. Unpaid leave might be a financial deal-breaker for some employees, who may show up for work in bad condition because they need every paycheck to make ends meet.  

“This is a time to look at sick leave policies and ways that people can be encouraged not to come into work,” Butler said in the webinar. Flexible telework options may also be a big help. Policy changes and current options should be communicated as early and clearly as possible, he adds.

Experts also recommend that employers and HR departments be mindful to ensure compliance with regulations that prohibit any behavior that can be considered discrimination or a violation of privacy.

For example, asking direct questions like, “Do you have the coronavirus?” could potentially run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, experts say. Too many specific questions about vacation travel could also be a privacy violation. And asking an Asian employee to stay home from work because they might have had contact with Chinese relatives could be considered discrimination.

“The decisions you make in the coming days and weeks will have a long-term impact on your business and your employees. So we want to make sure that you have the right information,” Taylor said. 

For more information and resources around COVID-19, please visit the ASIS International Disease Outbreak: Security Resources page.