By Elliot H. Clark
Harry Truman famously said the day after Franklin Rooseveltâs death, âWhen they told me yesterday what had happened,Â I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.â I am reminded of this quote now, as the COVID-19Â pandemic has thrust many HR executives into a new leadership role suddenly and in a way for which no one couldÂ prepare. In most companies, the day after the declaration of national emergency, the CHRO became the most criticalÂ executive on the CEOâs team.
Since then, HR has managed the global conversion to remote work for non-essential jobs, developed protocols forÂ essential jobs, overseen massive reductions in force or furloughs, and helped counsel and grieve for lost employees or theirÂ families. I am sure many of you agree that celebrating New Yearâs Eve and ringing in 2020 seems like a distant memoryâsomething that happened a decade ago when the world was naÃ¯ve of the waiting challenge that was already lurkingÂ unseen in the throngs of celebrators.
And now, once again, HR will have to take point on a new set of challenges when safely reopening the workplaces thatÂ were shuttered almost three months ago. In the backdrop, there are fundamental differences in guidance being givenÂ at the federal and state levels here in the United States, and some municipalities are even refusing to honor either set ofÂ guidelines, instead insisting that mayors or city councils should determine the policies. Large corporations are dealing withÂ a patchwork of guidance that they need to respect or face the unwelcome regulatory scrutiny of being second-guessed.
There are also some important considerations for companies. For example, is wearing a mask an act of personalÂ expression? Some are arguing that the government cannot mandate mask wearing, social distancing, or anything ofÂ the sort. There are always extremes on either side of the argument, and elected officials should take the debate amongÂ constituents to heart.
With that being said, it is within the rights of employers to prescribe health and safety protocols based on company policy.Â HR can tune out the extremes of civil discourse and mandate social distancing, mask wearing, the use of anti-microbialÂ products, temperature taking, and the likeâregardless of their local jurisdictionâs philosophy or stated guidance. It will fallÂ to HR to work closely with legal and health and safety functionaries in operating management teams to establish thoseÂ guidelines and decide when they should be relaxed or tightened. There are OSHA-reporting regulations for which youÂ need to consult your legal counsel, but much of what I have described can be the prerogative of the employer.
In addition, there are stark warnings of the emergence of plaintiff law firms soliciting COVID-19 class action lawsuitsÂ against already opened companies and health systems. I am not just suggesting the chance of these kinds of litigation, butÂ the absolute likelihood that this will become its own legal cottage industry in the second half of 2020. The coherency ofÂ policy and its uniform application will be paramount, and that will also be an additional burden on HR.
We have a lot of great content in this issue of HRO Today about how companies can bring workers back to the office:Â staggering shifts, rethinking seating charts, and all of the myriad considerations that form the foundation of creating aÂ safe work environment when the economy begins to function again. It has been gratifying to see the prominence of HRÂ during crisis, but saddening that so much misery and pain has been suffered in the past 90 days. Our team at HRO TodayÂ salutes the HR community for its effort and wishes all of you and your workforces a safe and healthy return to what, forÂ now, will be the new normal.