By Rickard Jorgensen, FCII, ARM, ACIArb
CPA Firms have a number of questions when planning the office reopening process. The most significant challenge is staff safety, as well as clients and other visitors. Liability if someone is contaminated, especially staff, is uncertain and Government guidance often. It is wise to continually monitor guidelines from the CDC, OSHA and State departments of labor and health.
Most firms are focused upon social distancing, personal protective equipment, cleaning routines and ways to screen for illness, as well as policies for what to do when someone tests positive for COVID-19. New processes and rules are going to be part of business standard operating procedure, including retrofitting work space and maintaining critical supplies.
Current guidance calls for employees to be six feet away from each other and to wear masks if they will be coming within six feet of others. Alternating office attendance into shifts, and a more liberal policy towards work from home is being adopted. Limiting contact with clients and other third parties has been mandated and in some cases, firms are requesting COVID-19 waivers from visitors to their premises (go here for an example). Conference rooms are being restricted in favor of the use of Microsoft Teams, Zoom or other virtual meeting applications.
Many CPA Firms are providing staff with Personal Protective Equipment like face masks and gloves, and hand sanitizer and disinfectants is strategically located in common areas and in work spaces. Common areas like break rooms and kitchens have limited access policies to avoid contact, and are subject to a more vigorous cleaning regimes.
Human resource consultants and insurers are suggesting that new posters must be prominently displayed at the entrance of an office and in common areas. See example posted in our office which was developed in conjunction with ADP. These “rules” include social conduct guidance.
The CDC allows employers to test for COVID-19. However there are obvious problems with this, including the fact that tests are not widely available, and they only certify that someone is negative at that moment.
Another option is to take employees’ temperatures daily. This has problems, though, as not everyone with COVID-19 has a fever, so it could lead to a false sense of security. And companies who do this must carefully consider the protective gear needed for the person taking the temperatures, Moran said.
A recent suggestion is that the entrance to the office should include a staff temperature recording station where this data can be noted, either in detail or as an affirmative response to the taking of a reading which is “normal.” If a staff member has a fever, a cough, or shortness of breath they should be sent home immediately.
There are CDC and OSHA guidelines about what to do if someone who was in the workplace – whether an staff or visitor – is found to be positive. In general, the office will have to be disinfected and employees will have to be informed. Give staff as much information as possible about the places in the building where the infected person went without revealing the person’s identity.
Some staff may be afraid to return to work, particularly those with pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to a poor outcome from COVID-19. Generally, there is no requirement to give paid leave to people simply because they are afraid. However, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires most employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide paid sick leave to employees in certain circumstances relating to COVID-19. According to the Final Rule issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, one such reason is that the employee is ‘particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
CPAs may be concerned about liability if a staff member is infected at work. Under OSHA, there are a general duties clause that requires that a workplace be free of hazards likely to cause death or serious injury. If a CPA is taking no safety precautions and someone dies, there could be consequences for the employer. Generally speaking, if someone gets sick at work, it’s covered under worker’s compensation. Providing the CPA acts in good faith in taking precautions based on known facts and guidelines, there should be no any additional liability, but talk to your insurance agent for risk management advice.
If a CPA tasks someone in the office to monitor regulations and guidance and update the firm’s leadership about any changes it will go a long way if later the employer has to defend its actions before a government agency or court.
Many insurers are providing “back to work” guidance. The partner-insurer of CPAGold™ has published a short but useful list of things to consider. Go here for a copy.
Jorgensen & Company are not attorneys and do not offer any form of legal advice. Consult with appropriately qualified local counsel for more assistance. Rickard Jorgensen is President and Chief Underwriting Officer for the CPAGold™ program and may be contacted at (201) 345 2440 or firstname.lastname@example.org