When businesses plan for adversity, such as employee attrition, economic downturns, and competitive factors, few to any businesses (outside of the healthcare sector) were prepared to cope with a viral pandemic. It was not something discussed, let alone taught in business school, yet within two months in early 2020, every SMB through mid-level and enterprise organization had to pivot to accommodate the health crisis, and minimize risk and loss.
The business community waited for guidance as the scientific and healthcare authorities began to unravel the truths about the Novel Covid-19 Coronavirus. The world “Novel” means unknown, or new to medical experts who were equally taken by surprise with the rapid global spread of viral pneumonia.
Let us take a moment to share some of the concerns that business owners have and discuss the legal responsibilities that business owners face regarding health and safety during the Covid-19 health emergency.
Business Owners Fear Potential Lawsuits from Customers
In the United States, there has been talk of the next stimulus package including legislation that provides broad and sweeping protections for business owners, against Covid-19 litigation. It would make it impossible for a customer (and possibly and employee) to take legal action against a business owner if they contracted the virus on-premises. Opponents to the temporary legal measure fear that it would increase reckless behavior and reduce preventative protocols if employers were immune to liability.
There are some legal challenges for a plaintiff and the burden of proof. How exactly can a customer prove that they contracted the virus by exposure within your business environment, and not in transit, or at another location? It would be difficult to prove, except in a case of willful negligence.
For example, if a food processing facility knowingly allowed employees who were infected with Covid-19 to continue to process non-dry products (such as seafood, or meat) where the virus could be easily transmitted. That would be negligence that would leave the business vulnerable to civil action. Meat packaging and processing businesses have been a focus for infection control and prevention.
This could extend to other types of businesses, including fast-food franchises, coffee shops, food trucks, retail stores, and medical practices such as dental offices, walk-in clinics, etc. Malpractice and general liability insurance provide coverage for most healthcare providers.
There are three priorities for businesses navigating the global pandemic:
1. Protect employee and customer safety.
2. Minimize transmission with hygiene and PPE procedures for staff and customers.
3. Preserve business viability and operational functions.
What does that look like for the average business? Retail fashion stores know that when people try on clothing, that they can be passing on a potential of infection to the next person that handles that garment. Many retailers have responded by closing fitting rooms for example, and disallowing returns or exchanges on garments and other merchandise. Restaurants that allow small capacity (25% in most American states by law) have removed condiments from the table, moving to more hygienic individual packages for sugar, salt etc. All in an attempt to insulate the business from potential liability issues.
Other businesses that are not confident that they could make the shopping or dining experience safe for customers and employees have shuttered completely. Closing temporarily and waiting for the pandemic to abate regionally.
Stimulus support from governments for business owners has marginally assisted, but does not compensate for the full economic loss of business closure for owners who cannot safely operate within the pandemic health prevention guidelines.
Best Practice Guidelines for Business Owners During the Covid-19 Pandemic
What can your business do to reduce liability and provide a safer environment for employees and customers? At a time when business revenues may be falling due to the impact of the Covid-19 virus on the economy, it will require additional expense to take appropriate preventative measures.
Some best-practice changes to improve safety in your workplace may include:
- Installing a plexiglass or plastic shield between front-facing personnel and customers who visit your location to pick-up products.
- Instituting a mandatory policy for PPE and providing it for your staff. This includes comfortable face masks, hand sanitizer, bacterial and viral effective soaps, and paper towels. Hand sanitizer should be a minimum of 60% alcohol base to be effective (check the label).
- Implement remote work accommodations for qualified employees and roles that can be managed from a home office without loss of productivity. Reduce the number of staff in your workplace to reduce infection risks.
- Avoid group or team meetings in one room. Implement Zoom meeting instead, where staff can participate from their own desk in a video conference.
Append your employee policy to ensure that workers are compensated for sick leave or can be furloughed. If an employee has to choose between lost income and attending a normal workday in the office, consider the cost of having 100% of your team infected at the same time. Many governments have instituted compensation for business owners to allow for this critical health and safety accommodation.
This update to the employee policy guide is critical. You may also wish to implement a cause for dismissal if an employee willingly continues to fulfill their duties after confirmation of infection by Covid-19. The threat of serious and even life-threatening health complications from Covid-19 is too great to tolerate deliberate risks to your team, their families, and your customers.