Bonnie Boettcher’s phone started ringing repeatedly around the middle of March. And it hasn’t stopped since.
On the other end of the calls are small business owners who do not have the luxury of having a human resources expert – much less a department – on staff.
The business owners have been frantically seeking advice for how to respond when one of their staff members or their families have been struck with the COVID-19 virus.
Boettcher is president of HR Sherpaz, a Milwaukee-based human resources consulting company. She has more than two decades of experience, specializing in employment branding, talent acquisition, training and development, coaching and counseling, legal and regulatory advice and risk management.
I asked Boettcher to share with our readers the frequently asked questions small business owners are asking her about COVID-19 and her answers to those questions.
Q. How overwhelming has the outreach has been? Would you call this an unprecedented crisis?
A. This pandemic is like no other crisis I have dealt with in my 25+ years in human resources. Small business owners have a fear of the unknown. Fear if their business will survive. They wonder how will they balance keeping people on the payroll, keeping their business viable, lay people off, as well as interpret and maneuver all of the new acts/laws related to COVID-19 (Families First Coronavirus Response Act [FFCRA], Payroll Protection Program, CARES Act).
Small business owners and their teams are being significantly impacted both personally and professionally. In addition to all of our current clients, I am getting calls/inquiries from past clients, colleagues, friends and family. The complexity of the new laws and the never-ending news coverage of laws that are changing daily cause a lot of confusion. This is a very fluid process.
Q. How is this crisis particularly difficult for small companies that do not have access to a full-time human resources expert on staff?
A. Without an HR partner, small business owners are turning to the internet for answers. Without reliable, accurate information, owners are at risk of not interpreting, communicating and executing these acts to the letter of the law.
Q. The owner of Company A has a staff member who has contracted COVID-19. What are the first things the employer should do?
A. Prior to the first sick employee, they should have the following in place:
A federal FFCRA poster posted in the workplace and sent to all people working virtually. This was required in place on 4/1/20.
A written company FFCRA policy in place that is in compliance with the new law.
A system to track, code and pay employees correctly if they hope to collect the tax credits for this sick pay each quarter. Most payroll companies should have this available.
A form for employees to request leave.
An approval communication process for each leave.
Make sure the employee is safe and getting the medical attention they need. Provide them options available under FFCRA. Determine who in the workplace they may have had contact with. Notify affected people that they may have been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Do not say who. This is protected confidential information.
Q. What are the most important things the same employer should NOT do?
A. Do not require a doctor’s note/excuse. You can inquire but cannot mandate because of the extenuating circumstance of how people communicate with doctors. Don’t tell the team who is infected or why people are not working. This is confidential information. Have a clear understanding of the FFCRA – eligibility, rates of pay, exemptions, tax credits, employer notice, effective date and enforcement.
Q. How important is it for an employer to have multiple crisis communication plans to reach the different stakeholders, such as employees, customers, vendors, partners and the media?
A. Very important. I think this pandemic brought this to light for many small and large business owners. The message needs to be crafted and communicated differently for each stakeholder, even though the basics of the message are the same. Each has a different tone and concerns that need to be addressed and how it impacts them. People want transparency and to know there is a plan.
Q. Is it a best practice to have those communication plans in place BEFORE a crisis happens?
A. The goal would be to have a plan in place prior to the crisis. Some standard plans would be for natural disasters, robbery, bomb threat, fire or business closure, etc. My recommendation is to have a crisis management manual including a communication chain, how to respond to the media and have a crisis management team to be available to report and respond to inquiries from all of the stakeholders. This is not something most companies think about until they are faced with a crisis.
Steve Jagler is the director of executive communications at Kane Communications Group.
I think this pandemic brought to light the importance of a crisis communications plan for many small and large business owners.