(TNS) — The COVID-19 pandemic has turned kitchen tables and spare rooms into impromptu offices. The sudden shift has left employers with a host of questions about managing employees remotely.
In some ways, Alisa Spector Angelo had a leg up on the problem. She’s been an advocate of flexible work arrangements, both as a boss — she’s president of Compass Business Solutions Inc. — and as a human resources professional.
Her Cranberry-based consulting firm, which serves as an outsourced HR department for other companies, already had employees working primarily from their home offices. Since March, she’s been doling out that expertise to organizations that find themselves suddenly thrust into a virtual work environment.
There are questions that can be answered with legal or contractual documents. For example, do non-salaried employees still get overtime when working from home? Yes.
Is a company liable if a remote worker trips over his dog during working hours? It depends, but probably yes.
Is there a way to ensure confidential company information isn’t compromised outside the office environment? Sure.
There is also a fuzzier but no less important liability that all companies have — managing their reputations. And in a moment of crisis, employees are watching, Ms. Spector Angelo warned.
“You can have core values posted throughout your organizations. But really, our employees are judging us in this moment and we’re defining our cultures in this moment,” she said. “Do our behaviors match those core values?”
Companies that have the means should consider whether hazard pay or reimbursing for computers and office furniture would be impactful to their employees.
She’s been helping companies brush up on their obligations under the Family Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, stressing that anxiety — which according to recent Census Bureau data is impacting 30 percent of Americans right now — is a covered condition.
Plus, there is new COVID-19 federal legislation that applies to smaller businesses than would be covered under FMLA.
Ms. Spector Angelo said the key is to communicate to employees: what they must do, like keeping track of their hours for overtime pay, for example; what they can do, if they need to order office equipment or use their personal cell phones for work, will that be reimbursed?; and, finally, what the company can do for them.
“This is economically crushing a lot of organizations,” she said. “Some of our clients have gone bankrupt,” while others are in solid financial shape.
“I think that their policy should reflect where they are on all of that,” she said.
Furthering the Work Mission
Stephen Bloomburg, a principal in the workers’ compensation department of Post & Schell PC, has done his share of helping clients brush up on the law and how it impacts the newly popularized work-from-home setting.
Employers, whether they are allowing someone to work from home or mandating it, should consider the employee’s house as a secondary work premises, Mr. Bloomburg said.
For injuries and workers’ comp claims, a secondary work premises counts as much as the first one — if an employee gets injured during the course of their workday while “furthering the business interests of their employer,” that worker can file a claim, he said.
A landmark 2006 case in Pennsylvania clarified the issue.
A Verizon employee who was working out of her basement went upstairs to get a drink. She was talking and then heard her work phone ringing, so she rushed downstairs, tripped, fell and sustained an injury. The court decided that even though she wasn’t working at the time of the slip, she was doing something necessary for personal comfort during work — like using the bathroom or eating lunch.
“Even though there was a momentary departure from an employee’s work duties,” Mr. Bloomburg said, “the key in these situations is whether the employee is furthering their work mission.”
In another case, where an employee went outside to have a quick drink then stopped to chat with a neighbor and injured himself during that conversation, the courts ruled that was too much of a departure from the work mission to be compensable by workers’ comp.
Mr. Bloomburg said it doesn’t really matter if the accident could have been avoided by the employee’s actions. Bundling loose wires and keeping passages free of tripping hazards is, of course, as good an idea in the home as it is in a commercial workplace.
But, “if the employee is injured while in the course of their assignment, they are going to receive compensation regardless of whether they were negligent,” he said.
And, as in an office setting, pre-existing conditions aggravated by the new work environment — such as a back injury made worse by hunching over a laptop at the kitchen table — would qualify for workers’ compensation, Mr. Bloomburg said.
The Virtual Threat
The sudden shove toward a more virtual workforce means more companies also are learning about the cybersecurity liabilities of decentralizing their employees and their data.
“People are working from personal devices. And they’re handling confidential information from a personal device,” said Brett Creasy, president of the Downtown-based digital forensics and cybersecurity firm bit-x-bit LLC.
“Maybe it’s a shared computer,” he said. Likely, they’re using WiFi. Most aren’t connected through or have a virtual private network, or VPN, which acts “like a tunnel” between a remote computer and the office’s server.
The risk is multiplied with each unsecured connection.
The pandemic also has become a popular topic of phishing e-mails.
In a report released last month, the California-based cybersecurity firm Proofpoint tracked more than 300 phishing campaigns aimed at tricking people into disclosing their credentials since the beginning of the year. More than half had a COVID-19 angle, the company reported.
The answer isn’t necessarily a costly anti-virus software, but rather training employees on how to report phishing or other attacks, how to make their passwords more secure, and how to keep company data from falling into the wrong hands.
Mr. Creasy said setting up two-step authentication on those platforms would go a long way. That could mean to access your email you’d be sent a text with a code.
Pandemic or not, it’s very difficult to keep all of a businesses’ information within the four walls of its office. Employees send files to their personal e-mails. They take photos of documents with their phones.
Most companies don’t have policies on securing this information and retroactively erasing those emails and images, he said. Now is the time to develop some, Mr. Creasy said.
“If my company isn’t in a position where I can provide a work-issued computer that has all these controls on it, it’s just a matter of laying out what the expectations are.”
Mr. Creasy already foresees a challenge in cleaning the personal devices of remote workers when they return to their office desks. He suggested IT departments prepare to interview returning employees so they can understand what devices were used at home and how.
It’s not about getting employees in trouble, he said, and that has to be made clear for an honest assessment. “It’s that companies have an obligation to protect that data, some probably contractually with their clients,” he said.
Some data might be sensitive enough to require personal devices to be professionally scrubbed of it, he said.
And while all that is being sorted out, Mr. Creasy advised already thinking about next time.
“Maybe it’s not COVID-20 next year, but some other event that is going to stress the normal operations,” he warned.
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