Open, Closed, or in Between? Protocols for Ensuring Employee Public Health in Government Facilities

As local governments continue on the path to reopening, it may be time to update COVID-related employee policies.

By Patricia Vinchesi, NE regional director, ICMA & Laura Goddeeris, director, ICMA Survey Research | Aug 31, 2020 | BLOG POST

Approaching seven months into the U.S. COVID-19 response, we continue to see a patchwork of openings, partial openings, and closures across the country. Because each state, county, and locale has had some degree of autonomy to determine if, when, and how it will reopen, each has also had to develop its own framework for how employees will return, services will be delivered, and public health guidelines will be implemented.

Many city, county, and town halls remain closed. Conversely, many others have been open for months. For those that closed down for a time, it is widely acknowledged that closing was much easier than the challenges brought forth with reopening. While closing mostly centered around issues involving teleworking, proper technology, and ensuring the delivery of emergency services by essential workers, reopening is fraught with challenges around CDC-issued public health guidelines, along with other issues such as employer liability, personnel policies regarding employee compensation for absences and quarantines, and the looming potential of reclosing should the threat of COVID-19 spike again or an employee become ill with the virus.

The result has been municipalities scrambling to put policies in place 1) to address a myriad of employee-related matters such as testing, PPE, social distancing, quarantining and 2) to ensure that citizen access to town hall is safe.

Most communities acted quickly to put comprehensive reopening protocols in place. ICMA Connect, the online community for ICMA members, has a number of these protocols posted by members, which offer a wide range of informative resources on this topic. As we’ve grown accustomed to co-existing with the virus, nuances to these policies have emerged. Here are some examples and issues to consider as you continue on the path to reopening your community.

Employee Protocols and Policies

There are three major protocols involving employees and the work environment: 1) employees returning to work, 2) employees at work, and 3) employees who become ill at work or outside of work. Associated with these issues is the use of compensated time, application of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the potential eligible use of CARES funds. In addition, there is also the potential use of emergency paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). See FAQs about FFCRA from the Department of Labor here, and a quick-reference poster of key requirements here.

1. Employees returning to work. Protocols in this area include some form of testing or screening to prevent infected, symptomatic, or potentially exposed employees from entering/re-entering the workplace. Policies may specify whether COVID testing is free for public employees. Once relocated physically in the office, in most cases a certified self-evaluation, such as daily temperature check or one administered by the employer, is required.

While vacations look much different in 2020 than in years past, a sizeable share of the population has begun venturing out this summer after months cooped up at home. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just elected to drop its national interstate travel quarantine recommendation, some states maintain quarantine and testing guidelines or restrictions related to interstate travel, especially if using mass transit such as planes or buses. Local governments have developed their own policies and protocols to protect the workforce and the public. As of this writing, the city of Blaine, Washington, requires a “separation period” between an employee’s return to work and 14 days after their return from travel. During this time, they can work remotely or in an isolated location if possible, and they can shorten the period by providing two negative COVID-19 tests, 48 hours apart. Employees are eligible for paid leave while awaiting results and the city pays for the tests. The town of Auburn, Massachusetts, also mandates requirements for quarantine or testing prior to an employee’s return. Whereas Blaine’s policy exempts employees traveling by personal vehicle, Auburn’s differentiates based upon the COVID risk status of the travel destination, as defined by the state.

Key considerations:

  • Amended telework policies: with physical distancing and limitations on indoor capacity still the norm, many local governments continue to reevaluate and expand their telework policies.
  • What travel disclosures are required for employees? Does the mode or destination influence your requirements? During any travel-related quarantine or other restriction on return to work, are employees eligible for any paid leave?

2. Employees at work. Mask requirements vary by jurisdiction but are being required more and more by local ordinance. Social distancing, either through staggered workweeks or by office redesign, is also common. Virtual meetings continue to be used in place of in-person meetings whenever possible. Equipment sharing is prohibited or kept to minimums.

Strict notification requirements have been widely implemented to notify the employer if you become ill. Many communities, like Maplewood, New Jersey, also require a daily (confidential) questionnaire for employees to complete, certifying they are not experiencing symptoms. The policy also calls for employees to stay home and notify the administration at the onset of any symptoms.

It is paramount for employees to know and follow protocols even if asymptomatic to minimize risk to others. But note that there may be ambiguous scenarios requiring extra clarification or reminders, for example, the period between suspected or known exposure (whether symptomatic or not) and receipt of test results. In Fairhaven, Massachusetts, town hall was closed for four days and offices deep cleaned after an employee reported a positive test. Subsequently, the test resulted in a false positive. This incident served to demonstrate that the protocols put in place worked, and that employees were operating in an environment that maximized their safety. Local government organizations need to be prepared for the ambiguity inherent in many of these new protocols and practices but ultimately exercise an abundance of caution.

Yuma County, Arizona’s reopening and recovery efforts also recognize that finally being back at work does not end stresses for employees. They have encouraged employees to view webinars offered by their Employee Assistance Program covering topics such as dealing with coronavirus-related stress, return to work anxieties and family situations regarding the pandemic. Yuma County’s specific reopening plan also lays out sample processes for employees to follow as they return to work and address emerging pandemic-impacted operational issues.

Key considerations:

  • Privacy of medical information – Maplewood’s daily questionnaire is considered part of an employee’s medical records, and so, is maintained separately from personnel files.
  • When/whom should an employee notify if symptomatic or exposed, and what are your protocols for immediate response, i.e., notification of other employees, cleaning, closures, etc.?
  • As new challenges related to resuming work are identified, is there a clear process for reporting and resolution?

3. Employees who become ill. This issue has been one of the most time-consuming for managers. If an employee tests positive, he or she is required to quarantine and follow that state’s requirements for contact tracing. The employee goes on leave. Some communities give employees the option of what type of leave they want to draw from. El Cerrito, California, stipulates that emergency paid sick leave can be used on an intermittent basis. Employees self-certify and are not required to use other leave first. In states with collective bargaining, all of these new policies have required union negotiations particularly for what type of time will be used during the quarantine period.

Key considerations:

  • Notifications – Do you have a clear chain of communication laid out between an employee that tests positive and HR/leadership, as well as timely notification of other staff that may have been exposed?
  • Documentation – What are employees required to provide?
  • Do your protocols clearly delineate what paid leave options are available (including the order in which they should be used, if necessary) to employees testing positive or caring for a family member testing positive? Do you anticipate tapping CARES Act relief to reimburse these costs?
  • Do your protocols say anything about emotional support resources available to employees testing positive and/or zero tolerance for harassment by other staff?

No matter the approach, whatever policies are adopted cannot predict each nuance and will need to be adapted as scenarios or circumstances change around when employees are symptomatic, test positive or travel to other states.


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