Focus On

Return to work survey gauges employers’ concerns

Friday, June 26, 2020 @ 11:14 AM | By Rhonda B. Levy and Sari L. Springer

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Rhonda B. Levy
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Sari L. Springer
In May 2020, Littler published its Littler COVID-19 Return to Work Survey Report, which summarizes and analyzes data from more than 1,000 in-house lawyers, HR professionals and C-suite executives, completed via an online survey tool from May 5-14, 2020.  The report gauged employers’ concerns and strategies in reintroducing employees to the workplace in the wake of COVID-19. 

Respondents included:

  • Human resources professionals (59 per cent)
  • General counsel/in-house attorneys (31 per cent)
  • C-suite executives or other professionals (10 per cent)

Companies represented were a variety of sizes:

  • More than 10,000 employees (14 per cent)
  • 5,001 to 10,000 employees (eight per cent)
  • 1,001 to 5,000 employees (22 per cent)
  • 501 to 1,000 employees (12 per cent)
  • 101 to 500 employees (28 per cent)
  • One to 100 employees (15 per cent)

Nearly all respondents (98 per cent) said their organizations have operations throughout the United States. Many also indicated that they had operations in other parts of the world, including in Canada (20 per cent). 

While the report references the situation in the United States where, at press time, the vast majority of states had lifted or relaxed their stay-at-home orders and unveiled their return-to-work-plans, the report’s findings will be of interest to employers with operations in Canada, where return-to-work-plans have also been released, and provincial governments are in the process of gradually permitting businesses to reopen.  

The report’s findings relate to timing to reopen; steps businesses are taking to keep their employees safe; how employers intend to manage work-from-home accommodations; and employers’ top liability concerns.

Timing to reopen

The report indicates that while employers are headed to reopen with cautious optimism, they are not rushing things. Once permitted to operate, employers will:

  • bring employees back immediately (18 per cent)
  • wait a few weeks (33 per cent)
  • monitor the outcomes of other businesses reopening before making decisions (42 per cent)
  • not reopen until the until the crisis subsides and/or testing is broadly available

These timelines were consistent regardless of an organization’s size.

Steps to keep employees safe

Respondents indicated they are taking the following actions to keep employees safe:

  • increasing cleaning efforts (90 per cent)
  • limiting employee contact in common areas (87 per cent)
  • providing/encouraging the use of face coverings or other protective gear (86 per cent)
  • modifying physical workplaces to maintain distancing (78 per cent)
  • conducting health screening and testing (60 per cent)
  • temperature checks (89 per cent); and
  • symptom screening (72 per cent)

Eighty per cent of those respondents who said they will conduct health screening and testing stated that the screening will be mandatory.

The percentage of large organizations (more than 5,000 employees) taking actions to protect employees was higher across all answer choices (by roughly 10 per cent) when compared with all respondents. The report acknowledges the logic in this due to the risks associated with having more employees on site and the expense of new safety measures. The report notes that in reflecting on costs associated with new safety measures, an owner of a smaller home health-care company pointed out, “this is a financial burden we did not have before the virus.”

The report also indicates that many respondents observed in their written feedback that new guidelines are only effective if employees actually follow them. An HR professional in the financial services industry noted that “getting employees to be in frequent cleaning mode, not just of their own workspaces, but in commonly used spaces” would be a significant challenge. An in-house lawyer for a large technology company highlighted the difficulty of “changing employee behavior to maintain social distancing when a primary reason people want to come back is to socialize.”

The report concludes that in view of these and other difficulties, “clear, consistent communication and training on new safety and social distancing measures are crucial elements of any return-to-work plan.”

New work-from-home accommodations

Respondents indicated:

  • They are considering, either somewhat or to a great extent, requiring more employees to work remotely to reduce office costs (50 per cent); the number was higher (60 per cent) for companies with over 10,000 employees.
  • They will be amenable to employee requests to stay remote whether it’s being flexible in accommodating valid requests until the pandemic subsides (52 per cent); or changing remote work policies altogether and allowing employees to stay remote if they’ve proven effective in doing so (30 per cent).

However, the report notes that some employees may want to return to an office, as one HR professional put it, “due to cramped space, kids or roommates at home,” while at the same time, “employees worried about their safety or childcare availability may want to stay remote.” For this reason respondents indicated they plan:

  • to be flexible in accommodating remote work requests until the pandemic subsides (52 per cent)
  • to change policies to allow for more remote work (as long as employees proved effective in doing so) (30 per cent)

This was consistent from companies of every size.

Top liability concerns

When in-house counsel was asked how concerned they were about potential lawsuits as they look to reopen their workplaces, they responded they were:

  • “somewhat” concerned (71 per cent)
  • concerned to a great extent (11 per cent)

When asked what areas they expect to see an uptick in workplace claims or lawsuits, the top three responses were:

  • leaves of absence entitlements (68 per cent)
  • unsafe working conditions (59 per cent)
  • workers’ compensation (43 per cent)

As the report demonstrates, it is difficult for employers to envision exactly what their workplaces will look like in the COVID-19 era. Given the many complexities, employers reopening their workplaces in these unprecedented times are encouraged to seek competent legal guidance. 

As knowledge management counsel for Littler LLP in Canada, Rhonda B. Levy is responsible for satisfying the firm’s Canadian knowledge management needs, for monitoring legislative, regulatory and case law developments and for drafting and editing publications. E-mail her at Sari L. Springer, the office managing partner for Littler in Toronto, has developed a practice in employment law and higher education law, with a particular focus on human rights law. E-mail her at

Photo credit / z_wei ISTOCKPHOTO.COM 

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