Since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world economy in March 2020, it has not been business as usual. Last winter presented new challenges to small businesses as the Omicron variant caused a surge in cases and hospitalizations throughout the country, interrupting business once again.
Center for Disease Control (CDC) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted less of a surge this winter than in 2020 and 2021 in a recent White House briefing. The CDC also reports the 32 percent of Americans who remain unvaccinated, whether for personal or medical reasons, remain at greater risk. Cases are not yet trending upward in Texas at a pace for concern, but neighboring New Mexico is experiencing an upswing, as is Arizona, according to data from the Mayo Clinic.
That raises the question, yet again, of how to address the issue with employees nearly three years into the pandemic. Businesses need to evaluate their plans now for a likely increase in coronavirus cases.
Evaluate risk factors
Each small business faces a different risk from a coronavirus surge based on its operations, employees and business model. Unlike bigger corporations, small businesses cannot easily reallocate staff when the coronavirus spreads within the workplace. If an infection spreads to a majority of the team, leanly staffed businesses may need to shut down until employees can return to work.
For businesses producing or distributing consumer or industrial goods, a coronavirus surge in a factory or warehouse could further impact delivery times or disrupt the supply chain. Likewise, independent medical practices, spas or gyms with daily in-person contact could face major impacts in the event of coronavirus spreading between employees and clients. On the other hand, a client services agency like a law firm with a hybrid schedule may face less of a risk, provided sick employees feel well enough to work from home.
Risk will also vary based on vaccination rates, age and health of staff. Employers should be careful to protect employee’s privacy but asking whether an employee is vaccinated does not violate any laws if the question is limited to a yes-or-no answer, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Federal law also does not prohibit employers from requiring all employees to be vaccinated in some circumstances but employers who wish to explore that option should consult with legal counsel to understand the risks.
Finally, businesses need to understand their community risk factors. Find out where weekly coronavirus data is reported within the region and assign responsibility to HR for tracking this data. If cases begin to peak, that could signal growing risk to the business and workers.
Based on the evaluation of risk factors to employees and business operations, determine how a possible surge could impact profitability. If possible, crunch the numbers on revenue and losses for a clear understanding of the financial ramifications. This data will help guide protocols.
Address preventive measures
In the early days of the pandemic, many businesses introduced requirements for employees to test regularly or remain home if experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus. While some businesses have discontinued these policies, they represent a helpful starting point for preventive protocols to implement during another surge.
Businesses who face a significant risk from a coronavirus surge may wish to introduce regular testing at once-a-week intervals, regardless of whether employee show coronavirus symptoms. Communicate to employees about why these protocols are necessary. In July 2022, Pew Research Center found only 41 percent of Americans view the coronavirus as a major threat to public health, down from 67 percent in July 2020. That means employees may take fewer precautions in their own lives and benefit from a reminder of the potential coronavirus impacts to business.
Staggered schedules can further lower the risk of a coronavirus breakout in the workplace, especially for the largest teams on staff. A business with a hybrid remote work policy may divide teams into “pods” where employees only come into the workplace on the same day as other workers in their pod. This approach can contain the potential coronavirus spread to the individuals within the pod while allowing in-person collaboration to continue.
It is important to keep in mind these policies present their own costs in the form of coronavirus test kits, if provided to employees by the business, the cost of employees’ time and possible reduced productivity. Considering these tradeoffs, entirely remote startups or small businesses with less risk of spreading coronavirus between teams may decide against mandatory testing and staggered schedules. Businesses who make that decision should carefully monitor coronavirus data in their communities in case circumstances should change.
Set protocols for illnesses
Regardless of mandatory testing and staggered schedules, all small businesses should put coronavirus policies in place, including how to respond with symptoms present and for those who test positive, but may not have symptoms. When setting policies for those who test positive or someone in their household tests positive, it is important to get the latest information on quarantines from the CDC and communicate these policies clearly with employees.
If vaccination status is unknown, set a rule applying to everyone. Policies to prevent a coronavirus case from spreading include a requirement for exposed employees to work remotely for the quarantine period or wear a mask and socially distance in the workplace. While small businesses and startups often take pride in their flexible approaches, coronavirus policies should be fair and standardized for all.
The worst of the pandemic may be over, and by planning for the likelihood of a winter coronavirus surge, businesses can help ensure it stays that way.
Jill Chapman is a director of early talent programs with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions.