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We're back at work. Now what? Human resources experts answer dentists' questions

July 14, 2020
These HR experts answer two questions from dentist-employers regarding how to handle post-vacation employees, as well as employees who are reluctant to return to work. Are you handling these situations correctly?
Rebecca Boartfield and Tim Twigg, Human Resources Experts

QUESTION: My employee is taking a vacation. Does the person need to quarantine after?

(This information is primarily for domestic travel. For international travel, please see the CDC guidance at the end of this question.)

Fundamentally, this is a tricky situation because employers are not responsible for the legal activities performed by employees during their off hours. When employees are clocked in, they are the employer’s responsibility. Once they clock out, it is difficult if not impossible for the employer to micromanage everything they do.

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to these situations. There are so many variables:

  • Does your state/county/city have travel restrictions or isolation orders in place?
  • Where are they going? What are the COVID cases like in that area?
  • How are they getting there (flying, driving, public transportation)?
  • Who are they spending time with?
  • How careful are they, in terms of masks, social distancing, etc.?
  • How careful are their friends and family ?

These are not questions that you typically ask employees when they request time off. Even in the post-COVID landscape, asking these types of questions may not be a good idea.

In terms of assessing the risks and charting a path forward, however, these are exactly the questions that need to be answered. The question is whether this responsibility falls on the employer, the local health department, or someone else. At the moment, this is not clear. Stopping this pandemic depends, in part, on the individual choices made by everyone; we are all in each other’s hands, so to speak.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

You are absolutely allowed to tell employees to avoid work for 14 days after they return. It is within your rights as an employer to adjust the schedule depending on the facts of the situation.

You are allowed to create policies based on circumstances, such as a mandatory quarantine for 14 days, if someone travels out of state or if they travel to a known “hot spot.”

Obviously, all of this can be very disruptive to business operations.

If the question is, “should” you tell employees to quarantine for 14 days, that’s a question we really cannot answer due to all of the many variables above. If you haven’t already, we would recommend contacting your local health department to see what they have to say given the particular circumstances.

Vacations are not a guaranteed benefit, meaning the office is not required by law to approve vacation time. If an employee is traveling, or is traveling to a certain place, you can have a policy to simply deny their request.

Keep in mind that traveling is not necessarily more dangerous than staying in town. An employee could “travel” for their vacation, but do it in a personal vehicle, have little to no interaction with others, go camping outdoors, and remain socially distant. Another employee could remain in town and attend an indoor party with dozens of strangers, none of whom are wearing masks.

If you have a blanket policy of denying any and all vacation requests that involve travel, this can have the consequence of employees lying about where they're going.

We recommend having regular check-ins with your employees to remind them about being safe and responsible outside of work. You cannot truly control or dictate exactly what they do during their off hours. And yet, you can remind them of your commitment to safety and to keeping the other employees and your patients safe. It’s also worth remembering that this pandemic will pass eventually, and these restrictions are only temporary.

Another common question is, “Can I or should I require that emplooyees get tested before returning to work?”

Here are two important notes regarding testing:
1. Timing: Keep in mind the timing of when someone might have been exposed, when they have a viral load that can be detected, and the timing of when the test is performed. Just because an employee tests negative the day they arrive back from vacation does not mean they are truly “clear.” If they caught the virus during the final days of their vacation, a test when they get back may not actually work.

2. Costs: If the employee elects on their own to get tested, then that is fine. If the practice requires a test, or says that someone “should” get tested, or allows someone to return to work sooner than 14 days if they get tested, then the office needs to pay for the cost of the test and the employee’s time going to the clinic and being tested.

Lastly, always keep in mind who the pandemic experts are: the local and state health departments, the CDC, and similar agencies. When it comes to stopping the pandemic and the best actions to take, these agencies should always be consulted. They cannot eliminate all risk, they are doing the best they can, and they know much more about this issue than the rest of us.

Here are two helpful links:

CDC Guidance on Travel Within the US: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-in-the-us.html

CDC Guidance on International Travel: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/after-travel-precautions.html

QUESTION: My employee is scared to come back to work. My employee is in a high-risk category. What do I do?

ANSWER: In addition to the information discussed below, review our new Reinstatement Guide.

First, engage in a dialogue with the employee about their reasons. Are they worried about contracting the virus from a coworker or a patient? Do they have someone in their household who is high risk? Find out what could be done to alleviate their concerns. Would additional personal protective equipment 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 mentioned 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 an HR specialist before making 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, you have four employees under the age of 40 and one employee in her 60s, and 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.

For these and many more questions from dentists regarding their current situation, with answers from the HR experts, visit bentericksen.com/coronavirus-faqs.