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Human Resources Questions for Dentists: Addressing COVID-19 concerns

May 26, 2020
The HR experts at Bent Ericksen & Associates answer two key questions on COVID-19 about waivers and high-risk employees. Here's what you need to know.

Rebecca Boartfield and Tim Twigg are human resources experts with Bent Ericksen & Associates who deal closely with dentists and are familiar with their HR issues. The questions related to COVID-19 started arriving the moment dental offices were told to close. We feature two of the common questions. Click here to read more questions and answers from dentists who are learning as they move forward. 

My employee is scared to come back to work, or my employee is in a high-risk category. What do I do?

First, engage in a dialogue with the employee about his or her reasons. Is the person worried about contracting the virus from a coworker or patient? Does the person have someone in the household who is high-risk? Find out what could be done to alleviate any concerns. Would additional PPE make a difference, or more space between workstations?

Second, make sure that your office is following the latest OSHA, CDC, ADA, and public health recommendations and requirements. You may need to update some of your standard operating procedures and make physical changes to your office.

If you have done everything suggested here, and an employee is absolutely unwilling to return to work regardless of any and all accommodations, then this may need to be treated as a leave of absence or voluntary resignation, depending on your state. Due to the potential ramifications of this, we would recommend speaking with one of our HR specialists before taking your final action.

Also, be careful about making safety decisions for your employees. This is usually done with good intentions to protect your team. However, this can easily lead to a discrimination claim. For example, say you have four employees under the age of 40 and one employee in her 60s. While you gradually increase the business level back to normal, you tell the older employee to stay home and stay safe while allowing the younger employees to return to work. This can result in an age discrimination claim.

If an employee is high-risk or does not want to work for some reason, we strongly recommend speaking with an HR specialist before ending employment or taking a strong stance against the employee.

In addition, we recommend reviewing our new Reinstatement Guide.

Should I have all of my employees sign a waiver of liability related to COVID-19 before coming back to work?

Our current position on having employees sign some type of COVID-19 liability waiver is: we question the value of these waivers and we question how much protection they would provide.

What you need to focus on is ensuring workplace safety and following the latest CDC, OSHA, public health, and ADA guidelines and protocols. The best way to protect yourself is to proactively engage all employees in being involved with and requiring them to take all precautions through training, orientation, and reminders.

Peace of mind will come from knowing you are doing all of those things right, not from a signed form or letter.

If it can be proven that you were negligent, remiss, or ignored taking all of the necessary steps and precautions to ensure a safe work environment (or essentially were using the waiver as a “get-out-of-jail free” card to not do those things), then a signed letter or waiver is not going to help.

It’s also worth considering the message you send by having all employees sign a document like this, especially if other employers are not.

From an HR perspective, COVID-19 carries similar risks as other diseases that might be contracted in the workplace and liability waivers have not been viewed as valuable or beneficial.

If you are (or have been) taking all of the necessary steps, and an employee contracts COVID-19, it would be hard to make the case that you were negligent or personally responsible for the transmission.

Additional resources can be your worker’s compensation and liability insurance carriers.

For more questions from dentists regarding the current situation, visit bentericksen.com/coronavirus-faqs/.

Editor's notes: To view DentistryIQ's full coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, including original news articles and video interviews with dental thought leaders, visit the DentistryIQ COVID-19 Resource Center.

To view previous HR questions, visit DentistryIQ.com and search "Human Resources Questions for Dentists."