When working from home isn't an option, these resources can help workers avoid coronavirus

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Twitter made headlines this week when it became the first major U.S. company to strongly encourage all employees to work from home in an effort to minimize the coronavirus spread.


As COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, becomes more widespread throughout the U.S., more employers are likely to follow suit.

Alex Alonso is the chief knowledge officer of the Society for Human Resource Management. He tells CNBC Make It that the society's call center has seen a surge in requests from HR professionals seeking guidance about how to prepare their work forces for operational disruption, as well as ways to safeguard their employees' health.

In addition to complying with safety guidelines from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts say these are some of the ways employers can support their workers amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The case for paid sick leave

One of the biggest recommendations to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the workplace is for those who are sick to stay home.

However, recent reports suggest as many as 90% of workers have gone to work while sick. Their main reasons for doing so include having too much work, not wanting to take a sick day and feeling pressure from management and colleagues to continue working while under the weather.

And for many, taking a sick day means forgoing a paycheck. There is currently no federal law to mandate paid sick time; instead, a handful of states and cities require employers to provide paid sick leave to qualified individuals. Those who don't work in these areas could very well be sent home by their employer without pay if they show symptoms of pandemic influenza.

Unfortunately for many, staying home does not seem like a viable option.

Aaron Goldstein, partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney in Seattle, says he's advising companies to provide workers with unlimited paid sick leave given the current coronavirus spread.

"A lot of workers can't afford to miss a paycheck," Goldstein says. "If someone's out of paid sick leave or time off or worried about having enough in their bank to take care of a love one, they may come to work when they don't feel well."

Experts worry this could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, considering it produces mild cold symptoms in about 80% of patients, according to Sylvie Briand, a physician who is the head of WHO's Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness division.

"For folks unable to work at home, companies need to take a long view that a temporary shutdown and extra precautions now are going to be a lot less expensive than if an illness sweeps through the workplace," Goldstein adds.

Alonso says the SHRM call center has seen a small but noticeable increase of employers asking how to create a completely new category of paid leave given the coronavirus spread.

"One of the things we've seen is HR professionals asking, 'Can we offer conditional paid leave even if we haven't set up our compensation structure in that way?'" he says. He encourages workers to ask their employer whether existing or a new category of paid leave is on the table if the spread worsens in their area.

David Barron, a Houston-based labor and employment attorney at Cozen O'Connor, says companies may also need to be more flexible in how they administer their existing paid time off policies.

"Employees should ask the question: 'Will I be able to dip into my balance and potentially go negative? Or get PTO days in advance?'" he says.

Generally, a worker's paid leave options will be mandated by where they live, their employer and their employee status for benefits eligibility. Workers who are part of a union may consider speaking with a union representative about their leave options, as well. 

In terms of unpaid leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act provides eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to take care of their own or a family member's "serious health condition."

When working from home isn't an option

"The most important thing employers can do is to assess their work scheduling and remote work options," Goldstein says. "If you have resources to do that, spend that up now so it's ready to go, should the virus become more widespread."

Of course, these workplace policies tend to be more common among technology companies and offices that already accommodate remote working options. 

For those who work for a company without an active flexible work culture, workplace strategist Cali Williams Yost says employees can advocate for putting those measures in place.

The CEO and founder of workplace strategy firm Flex+Strategy Group advises workers sit down with their manager, walk through their daily responsibilities, and determine which, if any, can be done remotely.

Workers should be prepared to determine what resources they'd need to make this arrangement work, including remote access to company systems, communication and videoconferencing tools, documents and so on. They should also lay out what the arrangement will mean for individuals as well as teams as a whole.

"None of this is wasted energy," she adds. "Right now it's coronavirus, but it could be something else down the road. It's worth it to take the time to think these things through."

For workers who need to be on the premises to do their jobs, Goldstein says employers may be able to accommodate alternative shift schedules, where workers come in outside of the traditional 9-to-5 workday. This could result in staggered commute times and fewer people in a space at a given time, which could help limit an individual's exposure to the coronavirus and other illnesses in general. 

Such arrangements could also be beneficial to working parents in the case of a school closure.

"If companies have shifts on weekends or hours where another parent may be home and able to take care of kids, that could make a huge difference," Goldstein says. "Companies need to be thinking of those practical realities."

Other workplace resources that can help

SHRM's Alonso encourages workers to brush up on their employer-sponsored health care coverage and understand what will be covered, and to what extent, should they become ill and need medical treatment.

Workers may want to research what's available to them beyond a health insurance plan. Through employee assistance programs, for example, workers can call or message with an HR specialist to make informed decisions about their health and finances. Workers can also explore whether their employer, or other community resources for that matter, provide access to mental health professionals should the outbreak impact their mental wellness.

For the time being, experts encourage workers to speak up about what would best serve them and their needs as employers develop their business continuity plans.

"Taking an attitude of cooperation and letting employers know what would help you would be hugely beneficial," Goldstein says. 

For example, if you're a working parent,  it's worth talking to your manager about what would happen given a mass school or child care facility closure, and what you would need from them as an employer. "Great solutions could be missed because people aren't communicating," he adds.

Finally, make sure your emergency contact information is up to date, says Jennifer Ho, vice president of human resources at HR software company Ascentis. Doing so can help HR teams contact employees quickly, out of business hours, about ongoing workplace updates.

"If employers can put a plan in place," Goldstein says, "they're not just going to save the bottom line, they're going to save employees heartache and fear."

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