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Top 12 HR Questions on the Coronavirus, Answered: HR’s role, Labor Policies, PTO, and Outplacement—Webinar Recap, Part 1

How HR can lead through the Coronavirus pandemic.
HR manager, working from home due to COVID-19, watching #TalkHR webinar to get answers to the top questions asked today.

The coronavirus pandemic is challenging HR professionals to respond and adapt quickly to fast-changing times. To support the HR community during this uncertain period, we recently put together a unique #TalkHR webinar: How HR Can Lead Through the Coronavirus Pandemic.

In this live chat and Q&A, four expert panelists—Tracie Sponenberg, Chief People Officer at The Granite Group, employment attorney Kate Bischoff, HR leader and #HRSocialHour Podcast host Jon Thurmond, and outplacement veteran Caroline Vernon—answered many timely questions from the audience about new changes in laws and regulations, best practices for helping teams adapt, and much more.

Below is a condensed version of the Q&A, edited for clarity. Some of the questions answered include:

  • What is HR’s role during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How can we support the organization as it relates to the staff’s mental health due to working remotely?
  • How can I get the executive team to understand the need for communication to all staff at this time?
  • After COVID-19 is over, how do you think the pandemic will change human resource management for companies?
  • What are the key questions around labor policies, paid time off (PTO), and outplacement support during layoffs?
  • What are the payout rules pertaining to last paychecks for those being unfortunately laid off due to the coronavirus? 
  • How soon can we begin telling employees that they can apply for the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, and where should we route them to apply?
  • What are some of the resources offering support to those being outplaced or offboarded in the organization right now?
  • How are you answering questions around EFMLA?

Read also part 2 of the webinar recap, “Top 9 HR questions answered: How to continue business operations during the coronavirus pandemic.”

What is HR’s role during this crisis? 

What is HR’s role during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Jon: I think it’s critical that while we’re at the front, we need to walk the walk and talk the talk. In my organization, for example, we really, really encourage those that can work from home to work from home. It’s not a large population that we have, but it is a population, and my VP said, “HR, we’re going to work from home. If you need to get out to the field to see people you can do that, but I want to demonstrate that if we are telling people to work from home as much as possible, let’s do it.” I think it’s the opportunity to make sure that we are taking care of folks and doing what we need to do, and really be the leaders that we can be and should be in the midst of a crisis like this.

Tracie: We did the same thing with our HR team. We wanted to make sure that we could continue on in the event where we maybe couldn’t go into the office—we could continue to pay people, continue to take care of people. In an event like this, HR is required to bring in all of our previous experience, skills, competencies to help lead during a crisis. Like Jon said, in the best companies, you really have HR taking a lead and advising and being part of an advisory group. 

We have a virus response team and we meet every single day, and we communicate out every single day to our entire team. We do have a lot of people still in the field, and we do have a fair amount of people who are working remote. That’s not easy to balance for companies especially that haven’t done that before.

How can we support the organization as it relates to the staff’s mental health due to working remotely?

Tracie: With my team, we get together every single day on Google Hangouts. I always start with, “How are you doing? Anything I can do for you?” We encourage the same thing with our entire team.

And we’re checking in with those who are working remotely, and we’re offering services. We have a whole section on our intranet that has different things people can take advantage of. We talk a lot about the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) particularly at times like now. But the primary thing we do is just communicate. You can’t overcommunicate. 

Jon: It’s also understanding that we’re not all digesting this the same way, and home situations, family situations, your general health, everybody’s got stories and things going on. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is something none of us have ever seen, and how we handle it, people will remember that down the road. If we don’t do it well, when things turn—not if, but when they turn—those people will leave. And when you ask them why they’re leaving, they’re going to tell you, and you’re not going to like the answer. So, I think it then goes back to the communication and showing a little bit more grace and understanding right now. 

Related: Gone Remote? A Step-by-Step Guide on Implementing a Program Properly

How can I get the executive team to understand the need for communication to all staff at this time? 

Tracie: This is a time where, as I mentioned earlier, we’re really using all of our skills, all of our competencies. That includes relationship building. We’re making sure that our company is operating with integrity. We’re making sure that our company is really acting in the best interests of our people, we’re making really tough decisions. That includes having some conversations with the executive team. And it includes stepping outside your comfort zone, and really going to whomever you need to go to to say, “Look, this is what I think.” That’s not always easy, but it’s always right. You have to have that conversation and find out what those barriers are, and find out how you can solve that.

Jon: Especially right now, if you don’t communicate with your folks, they’re going to make their own assumptions. I think it’s critical that you’re talking to people. They may not like what you’re telling them, but you need to be upfront, honest, telling them what’s what, because if you don’t, they’re going to make their own assumptions, they’re going to see things on the news. 

Kate: For those of you who are going through furloughs and/or layoffs, for the folks that you anticipate being able to bring back, keep your relationship with them, too, because when we’re able to come back and run at full speed, you want to have those people be champions for you, so that they’re raring to go.

Keeping those relationships is going to be crucial. You can do weekly things, you can have managers touch base with them, you in HR can touch base—not asking them to do work, but still making sure that they’re okay, if there’s anything you can do for them, et cetera.

Tracie: This is an extraordinary time, and if you have a culture where you’ve built up some good will, and you have a culture that cares about its people and that treats its people well, people are generally understanding. I know my friends who have great cultures and who’ve been through furloughs or layoffs. They have said that their people have been so incredibly understanding, and this is unique in the fact that it affects us all. It affects everyone in the world, and it’s such a different thing for us to go through as HR professionals. We may have all been in HR for 100 years, but we’ve never seen anything like this. So, your company culture is never more important than it is in a situation like now.

After COVID-19 is over, how do you think the pandemic will change human resource management for companies?

Tracie: I think a lot of companies now are seeing what HR can do, and hopefully seeing HR in a new light. We talk a lot in HR about the lack of respect that some of us experience, and lack of understanding of what we’re capable of, and I think if it’s done right, and if you as an HR professional are doing what we hope you are in something like this, this is really a chance for HR to show what HR really is. We’re not paper pushers, we aren’t administrators. Well, we are if we have for some of us companies here. But we are really strategic business partners and we’re helping the business get through this, and we’re helping our people get through this.

What are the key questions around labor policies, paid time off (PTO), and outplacement support during layoffs?

What are the payout rules pertaining to last paychecks for those being unfortunately laid off due to the coronavirus? Normally by law last paychecks are to be paid within 72 hours if an employee quits or immediately upon discharge. Do these same rules apply?

Kate: The number of hours is dependent on your state. How your state requires it to be done is how you are required to do it. That hasn’t changed with coronavirus.

How soon can we begin telling employees that they can apply for the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, and where should we route them to apply?

Kate: The Families First Coronavirus Response Act is in place as of April 1. Folks are going to be applying to you. They’re going to say they need the leave for one of the six reasons, whether it’s paid sick leave, or for taking care of a child whose daycare or school is closed. 

We got information from the IRS last night about the kind of documentation that you’re going to need to have with that particular form of leave, but here’s the scenario. They call you, they say, “I’m sick, I’m caring for someone who’s sick, I’m supposed to isolate, my kids aren’t in school.” You go through the following discussion: “Did you talk to your healthcare provider? If you did, what’s the name of the healthcare provider?” The clinic name is probably going to be okay. 

Then, you’re going to do the calculations of what is applicable. So, for reasons one through three, which are quarantine order if they’re sick, showing symptoms, seeking a medical diagnosis, or been told to self-isolate. In those situations, the number is up to $511 dollars for the tax credit amount. That is usually the max that people are using. For reasons four through six—caring for someone who has an isolation order or for a child—the tax credit amount is up to $200. 

Go through the math, talk to them about what that looks like, then send them an email summarizing your conversation. The IRS wants their request in writing, so you can ask them to send you an email after they’ve called you. Tell them, “In your email say what the reason is why you can’t work, and who your healthcare provider is.” Then respond to that email with, “Here are the calculations. This is what the leave is, this is how long you get.”

If, however, you have people who have already been furloughed or already been laid off, they are not entitled to these benefits under the act because there’s nothing for them to take leave from because they’re not working. So, they should be on unemployment. Get your folks on unemployment as fast as you can, because they were eligible as of day one if they were let go for COVID-19 related reasons.

What paperwork is required from employers for the Family First Coronavirus Response Act?

Kate: Right now we do not have forms to complete for the expanded FMLA or the paid sick leave. It is really possible the DOL (Department of Labor) is going to give us forms soon with their new regulations, but it’s not guaranteed. So, what you should be looking for is how you’re going to document, and email is going to be a perfectly fine substitute for having a DOL-designed form at this point in time, as long as you gain all of the information that you need.

Normally, when we’re talking about FMLA, we’re immediately going to, “Okay, let me go to the DOL website and download WH-80 for this particular situation.” We’re more loosey goosey than that at this point. Until we actually have forms from the DOL, documenting what you need to, including healthcare provider names, dates, et cetera, is going to be sufficient.

While the Families First Coronavirus Response Act only allows up to 80 hours of pay, can employees apply for this payout in addition to unemployment if they are expected to be out of work for an indefinite period of time?

Kate: You don’t get both. You don’t get the paid sick leave and the unemployment. So, if you’re on unemployment, you get unemployment. If you have the 80 hours of paid sick leave, you’re still working. Theoretically, you’re still an active employee who’ll be able to return after the 80 hours or use your own PTO, et cetera. But If you are laid off or furloughed and you’re not an active employee, unemployment is the place to be.

What are some of the resources offering support to those being outplaced or offboarded in the organization right now? 

Caroline: Offer outplacement. Outplacement is a service that’s provided by your organization when you’ve been impacted by a layoff or another workforce reduction, to help you land a new job faster. What we do at CareerArc is we offer this core services as a coaching program that’s delivered virtually, and it allows our candidates, your offboarded employees, access to speak with the coach on a one-on-one basis through a video chat, text chat, even phone call from their homes, which of course we all know is very crucial right now because we’re not meeting face-to-face.

We also give them access to over a million open jobs, so they can get assistance with their resume and proactive job search techniques and video interviewing guidance as well. 

Related: Get the Essential Guide to Outplacement

I’ve heard several employee complaints regarding the EFMLA paid provision applying only for child care. If an employee is sick or caring for a family member illness, they are not eligible under the EFMLA, but rather follow the regular FMLA guidelines, which does not include paid time off. So, how are you answering questions like that?

Kate: Congress set this up as a way to provide up to $200 a day for those who are taking care of their children because of school closures, et cetera. If someone is on FMLA, if the COVID-19 virus hits them so hard that they are meeting the definition of a severe health condition, then they get FMLA. They can use their PTO if they have any PTO, or sick time. 

But there’s no paid provision for employees taking care of people who aren’t their children. I understand why this might be a concern for folks, but this is how congress set it up. Congress gave this paid time for caring for children with a tax break for employers. So, we’re not going to be able to extend it for everyone in our organization because we don’t get that tax incentive for employees who aren’t caring for their children. So, being transparent, being open and honest and saying, contact your representative, is one thing that you can say for them to vent. But this was congress’s decision.

Can part time employees that have their hours reduced completely apply for unemployment?

Kate: It depends. If they have enough hourly basis for your state laws to receive unemployment, it is totally possible that they could get it. They should most certainly try to apply.

What if you work for a company of over 500, and you were told to self-quarantine because you were not high risk so they won’t test you, but you are displaying symptoms, but you do not have enough PTO to cover relief?

Kate: If you’re working for an employee with fewer than 500 employees, then emergency paid leave went into effect April 1. So, you’ll be able to use that leave, provided you’re not working for one of the excepted organizations like a healthcare provider or a first responder. 

For a company of over 500—I know if you work for big organizations, some of the best things about working for a big organization is that it’s likely to stick around for a long time. You’ve got good benefits, et cetera. But with this new bill, the big guys have really just gotten away scot-free where the bulk of the burden is falling on our small employers. Remember the law is a floor, and nobody likes to sleep on the floor. So, if you’re the HR person, try to do more, and model what those folks that are under 500 might be doing. If you’re the employee, go ask for emergency paid leave. There’s no harm in asking.

Tracie: For people who don’t have PTO and were told to self-quarantine, we’ve covered them. We value our team, we recognize this is a tough situation. We have somebody who’s been told they cannot work. They’re a huge risk to our staff if they come in. We’ve had one of our employees have coronavirus, we’ve gone through that, and we don’t want to go through it again. So we’re taking extra precautions.

Watch the full webinar.

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