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Japan’s COVID-19 Response Could Indicate a Global Shift in Daily Workplace Disease Prevention Practices

Recognizing that Japan has entered a new phase in its fight against the spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Japan officials announced a preemptive approach geared toward risk mitigation and slowing down the spread of the virus to prevent a spike in infections. This strategy, which includes strengthening testing and quarantining capacities, could have long-term impacts on employment practices, particularly in office-based environments in which technology provides more adaptive flexibility.

Recent reports have suggested that the virus’s incubation period may exceed two weeks, that some tests may result in false negatives, and that people can spread the disease lacking symptoms, including people who never develop symptoms at all. If accurate, employers worldwide will likely need to move on from the current standard two-week quarantine practice.

Most relevant to employers in the Japan announcement: (1) encouragement of remote work; (2) shifting commute times; and (3) making sick leave easier for employees with even mild cold symptoms. The announcement also urges event sponsors to rethink the necessity of work-related events. As Japan employers respond to these directives, other businesses may be well served to take note and begin to think about measures that equip their workplaces to respond to a longer-term coronavirus pandemic. Some questions to guide employers’ evaluation in this regard:

  • Remote work: What is the company’s current remote work policy? Is it implemented properly in the jurisdiction (e.g., through works council consultation, union negotiation, or in rules filed with a local labor authority)? Does it need to change temporarily or permanently? When employees want to work remotely from another country, significant tax, employment law, and payroll implications exist; while the balance of risk may have shifted toward permitting such work, remote payroll may not be a long-term solution and employers can take steps to ensure that managers are aware of this, and that they document and time-limit such arrangements accordingly. If indefinite cross-border remote work becomes necessary, employers without local entities may need to explore alternatives such as staffing agencies to ensure compliance with payroll and employment laws.

  • Videoconferencing technology: Does the company employ reliable videoconferencing or other remote communication technology? Employers may want to consider surveying employees about existing technology to identify any shortcomings and invest in remedying them.

  • Local commutes: Do most employees use public transportation? Is it possible to shift standard business hours temporarily or permanently, for the business as a whole or some employees? Can employees utilize a combination of working from home and coming into the office outside of rush hour?

  • Company events: Does the company sponsor any large events? If so, it may help to articulate the goal of these events, which for many organizations involves client and/or employee networking. What alternatives exist to advance this goal—would smaller events help? Can the company reduce the frequency of larger events? Are there other precautions the company can take involving events that are necessary, such as minimizing buffet dining, or changing an event’s location or attendees’ lodging? Is it feasible to let employees opt out of larger events?

  • International travel: In the short term, employees who travel internationally may face a high degree of uncertainty as they cross borders. Employees have already started expressing concerns to employers about anyone who comes back from a country considered to have an outbreak, which has manifested in some situations as stigmatization of countries and may even pose a discrimination risk. Some countries are imposing required quarantines on anyone entering from certain locations. Can the company reduce business travel? Does the company have a plan for employees who return? What if they run into unexpected quarantines of extended duration?

  • Sick leave: Japan’s announcement discouraged employees with mild symptoms from seeking medical treatment in a facility, so that the medical system could focus on taking care of those with serious symptoms. What are the company’s documentation requirements for employees to take sick leave and return to work? Have policies been properly implemented, or do they require a change? Does the company have a plan for employees who may exhaust their sick leave entitlement?

  • Infection-minimizing protocols: Businesses have likely already taken some steps to remind employees of hygiene procedures. Is there room for improvement in this regard, such as making sure that every desk has tissues and sanitizer, placing signs in restrooms, and increasing the frequency of cleaning?

  • Employee benefits: Do the company’s benefits include a remote medical benefit (such as through a phone application)? Employers may want to consider implementing such benefits or reducing any employee out-of-pocket costs to encourage employees to seek remote medical assistance.

  • Employee anxiety: If employees have expressed anxiety about the disease, has it been disruptive to the workplace? Are there response protocols in place and/or trainings for HR and management to alleviate panic and reassure employees of the company’s support?

The rapidly developing public health situation presents a moving target for employers, particularly those with cross-border operations. Japan’s recent announcement may offer a few hints as to what the future holds for workplace environments in Japan and elsewhere in the short-term and possibly beyond.

© 2020, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 57

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About this Author

Bonnie Puckett, Ogletree Deakins Law Firm, Atlanta, Labor and Employment Litigation Attorney
Shareholder

Bonnie Puckett leads the firm’s Asia-Pacific practice and offers global companies business-practical cross-border guidance on all aspects of managing a global and internationally-mobile workforce, reconciling complex issues of multiple and conflicting laws and managing risk.  Her regional focus spans Asia and beyond, with specialized expertise in countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Australia, Israel, and the UAE, as well as experience with matters in Europe and the Americas.  Bonnie’s practice covers data privacy, employee mobility and expatriate strategy,...

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