Like every business owner, the first months of the pandemic rocked your foundation. Now, nine months in, you’ve finally found your sea legs.
And then an angry employee blasts you on social media.
Your workplace is unsafe, according to him. You risk your employees’ health, he says. In a live video, he claims you don’t care about COVID-19 and you require your employees to work in ways that heighten their risk of getting COVID.
How you respond could make or break your company’s future.
Tricia breaks down the legal issues:
All employers should be aware that on July 27th, Virginia adopted new regulations that require all Virginia employers to implement COVID-19 workplace safety measures (Dunlap Law’s guide to the Emergency Standards is here). Even if you have only one employee, you are subject to the regulations which require you to perform an exposure risk assessment for every job task, determine whether PPE is necessary (and if so, what PPE is necessary), train your employees, and perhaps even create an Infectious Disease Plan written with employee involvement.
The COVID-19 Emergency Standards also prohibit employers from discriminating “in any way” against an employee who raises “reasonable” concerns about COVID-19 and workplace safety. You will need legal counsel to understand what actions could be “discriminatory” and whether the employee’s rant is “reasonable.” Reassigning that employee, changing their job description, or altering their work hours could be discriminatory.
When combined with the new Virginia Values Act (which became law on July 1st), the COVID-19 ES creates a treacherous landscape for employers. In addition to the ES’ ban on discriminating against employees, the Values Act prohibits retaliation against employees who exercise their legal rights. If your actions, in the wake of incendiary social media posts, meet the legal criteria for retaliation then you may trigger a lawsuit by an employee and / or an enforcement action by Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General.
Brian shares his insights on PR solutions:
Brian is the CEO of Commonwealth Public Relations, a PR firm headquartered in Richmond that specializes in everything from PR, content development and digital marketing, to crisis communications. In the last two years, his firm has won the “Best PR Firm in Virginia” award from Virginia Lawyers Weekly’s Reader Ranking poll, so he is a natural choice to shed light on a PR problem with legal risks.
In regards to COVID and employers minimizing their potential legal exposure, he notes that the #1 complaint from employees right now is poor communications.
“It’s important for employees to simply know what is being done now, what’s going to be done in the future and that you have an open-door policy regarding any concerns related to the pandemic,” Brian said. “The more you communicate, the less an employee will speculate about their safety and rumors will spread.”
For communications to work effectively during this time of COVID, employers should ensure their message aligns with legal requirements and is accurate and consistent before implementing multiple communications channels to inform their employees on what is happening now and what will happen in the future. According to Brian, these channels could include internal intranet sites, email blasts, Robo calls, social media group posts, and even verbal communications coming from upper level management down through the ranks.
Additionally, employers seem to be underestimating the frequency with which they should be communicating to their staff.
“We are encouraging clients to communicate as often as possible, but to be sure that they are communicating consistent messages of substance instead of just empty words with no meaning,” Brian added. “Some companies are over communicating a message of encouragement and not saying enough about how they are going to keep their teams safe and what their plans for safety are. We are seeing a lot of companies be very vague about what is required of their employees if they are afraid or even become sick.”
Tricia pointed out that, in this sense, Virginia’s Emergency Standard rules for COVID-19 workplace safety may be helpful because all employers must implement policies and systems for addressing these issues. What’s more, employers must include an employee or employee representative in their risk assessment process and development of safety plans.
Lastly, Brian notes that if complaints start to arise, handle them swiftly before rumors or misinformation start to spread leading to more individuals hopping on the bandwagon of accusations.
For any questions about your legal responsibilities as a business owner or employer, don’t hesitate to reach out to Tricia at Dunlap Law PLC. If you need help with your communications during this time, reach out to Brian Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your situation and potential solutions.