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Tips for Manufacturers on Continuing Production During the Coronavirus Pandemic

A recent article proclaimed a truth that manufacturers in all industry sectors know all too well: “You can’t build jets working from home.” As law offices, financial services firms, and tech companies close their doors and require employees to “work from home,” manufacturers face the reality that manufacturing requires employees to work on site. There is no factory production work from home. Intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act and workers’ compensation absences are hard enough to manage in the ordinary course of business. But the challenge to staff a factory becomes much more daunting every day during this COVID-19 pandemic, with emphasis on self-quarantine, social distancing, and avoiding groups of as few as 10 people.

High-Risk Employees

Manufacturers may have to move decisively to identify and exclude from the workplace those employees who have symptoms of the COVID-19 illness (i.e., fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, or difficulty breathing)—in fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends in guidance that employers “actively encourage sick employees to stay home.” Where feasible, it could be better to go one step further and identify and exclude from the factory employees who are at high risk. For example, employers may want to encourage employees who have taken cruises or international flights in the last few weeks, or who live with individuals with symptoms of COVID-19 infection, to remain at home.

Here are some potential ways to identify high-risk persons:

Temperature Checks

Some employers have instituted temperature-screening of employees upon entering work (to exclude persons with temperatures above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

This is easier said than done, as the implementation is tricky due to legal requirements to protect the privacy of tested employees and because the screeners need to be trained and protected.

Self-Identification

Asking for self-identification through regular surveys or interviews.

Again, this is easier said than done. Many hourly employees live paycheck to paycheck and may be reluctant to admit to having members of their households who demonstrate symptoms out of fear of being laid off or being unable to work for a period of time. Thus, employers may need to reduce the potential barriers to full disclosure.

Employers may find it useful to alleviate the painful consequences of self-disclosure if they expect full candor from their hourly employees. For example, employers might

  • modify attendance policies to allow time-off without penalty;
  • modify paid-time-off or vacation policies to waive notice or full-week requirements to allow employees to use paid leave entitlements;
  • allow employees to borrow from future leave entitlements; or
  • increase paid leave benefits.

Spotting and Reacting To Symptoms

Employers may want to train supervisors and employees to spot symptoms of possible infection in coworkers and encourage reporting. Basically, promote a “see something, say something” mind set. In response to identified symptoms, the employer may want to exclude the symptomatic employee and require medical clearance before allowing the employee to return. According to guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on COVID-19, “prompt identification and isolation of potentially infectious individuals is a critical step in protecting workers, customers, visitors, and others at a worksite.”

Keeping Employees Safe at Work (and Confident in Their Safety)

Employers may take a number of steps to maintain a safe work environment. Of course, in a unionized factory, a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and general federal labor law will need to be considered when the employer makes changes to terms and conditions. But this time of unprecedented pandemic crisis should compel union cooperation, or at least allow employers to rely on general “purpose of the agreement” type of language usually found near the beginning of CBAs. Especially where immediate changes need to be implemented to maximize employee health and better ensure continuity of operations (and jobs and wages), sometimes employers must make those temporary changes, even if the union objects. “Comply now, grieve later” is a cardinal principle that may need to be relied on to get through this crisis with employee health and the business preserved.

Employers may consider the following to maintain a safe work environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Prohibiting nonessential visitors to the factory
  • Rigorously screening essential visitors and limiting their movement in the facility
  • Training employees on self-responsibility behaviors (and refreshing the training regularly). These behaviors include:
    • respiratory etiquette
    • handwashing
    • using hand sanitizers
    • refraining from physical contact
    • prohibiting the sharing of utensils, cups, beverages, etc.
    • social distancing
  • Posting reminder signs of these behaviors in many conspicuous locations in the workplace
  • Making changes to implement social distancing, such as:
    • educating employees on keeping minimum distances and refraining from physical contact
    • ceasing the use of large-group, “town hall” meetings
    • replicating meetings multiple times to have smaller groups attend, and physically spacing people out in the meeting rooms
    • eliminating routine shift hand-off meetings that are not critical, or limiting these to just particular persons as critically needed
    • staggering shift start/stop times, break times, and lunchtimes to minimize congregations at the time clocks and in locker rooms and break areas
    • creating new shifts (nights or weekends) to help separate the workforce and give employees scheduling options that may help them manage new family obligations with kids home from school
    • zoning the factory and prohibiting employees from wandering into zones where they do not need to be to perform their jobs
  • Staggering crews so that an outbreak can perhaps be better isolated such that, after cleaning, the factory can run with unaffected crews
    • Example: Monday through Wednesday crews; Thursday through Saturday crews; cleanings to be performed on Sundays
  • Identifying key personnel without whom the factory cannot operate (e.g., boiler operators, wastewater treatment engineers, lead electricians or maintenance mechanics, etc.)
    • Creating schedules, procedures, and any other steps to isolate these personnel from each other and the rest of the workforce to try to minimize exposures
  • Beefing up cross-training, if that can be done with acceptable distancing, to prepare for more absences
  • Increasing the frequency and depth of sanitizing efforts, and letting employees see them happen to reinforce sanitizing behaviors and engender confidence in the safety of the workplace. Examples might include:
    • having break rooms cleaned repeatedly all day (perhaps after each lunch group)
    • providing sanitary wipes throughout the facility and training employees on using them constantly to clean high-touch surfaces

There is no standard solution to operating a factory during a pandemic. Many of these observations may be obvious to some, but hopefully this compilation of ideas in one place will be useful to manufacturers and prompt even more creative thinking about how to keep factory employees safe, healthy, and productive.

© 2020, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 79
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About this Author

Bernard Bobber Employment Lawyer Ogletree
Partner

Bernard J. (“Bud”) Bobber is a shareholder in the Milwaukee office of Ogletree Deakins. Mr. Bobber represents employers before federal and state courts and administrative agencies throughout the country in all areas of employment law, with particular focus on wage and hour, trade secrets/noncompete, employee benefits and employment discrimination matters. Mr. Bobber has extensive experience in the defense of class action cases. He also routinely represents clients in labor arbitrations and in unfair labor practice proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board....

414-239-6411
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