COVID-19 is affecting businesses and organizations like nothing before. While organizations have faced difficult situations in the past 20 years, including 9-11 and the Great Recession, the virus outbreak affects everything from supply chains and decreased sales to the need for employees to work remotely or take time off to care for themselves, a loved one or children off from school. And — perhaps the hardest part of all — no one knows when business and life will get back to what was considered normal before mid-March.
“The current situation is a test on so many different levels as it impacts employers in multiple ways,” says Lisa Cruz, the president of Red Shoes Inc. who works with businesses and organizations on crisis communication plans. Businesses need to look at the crisis “from a bottom-line perspective, employee health concerns, customer readiness, family life and more.”
While Cruz has helped other organizations with their crisis communication plans, this time is different since she’s also dealing with the crisis.
“For me personally, I have felt this specific COVID-19 crisis on all these different levels including my husband being on the front lines of health care, being a mother of four kids, owning a business and more,” says Cruz, adding her experience has helped her navigate through the unexpected with a calm demeanor. “I am always anticipating what’s next and then how to lead through it.”
To stop COVID-19 from spreading and overwhelming health care systems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people to not only practice good hygiene but also social distancing. In response, many businesses have encouraged employees to work from home if possible, while others — especially those where a lot of people tend to gather — have closed.
At J. J. Keller & Associates, all employees who can work from home are being encouraged to do so, says Travis Rhoden, a senior environmental health and safety editor with the Neenah company. But not all jobs can be done from home, and employers need to make sure workers coming to work are safe, he adds.
“Let’s say you have an employee who comes in and may look sick or have a cough. Employers need to know what they can do and what they’re not allowed to do under that situation,” Rhoden says, adding that while the situation is very fluid right now, businesses still must follow Occupational Safety and Health Act regulations and employment laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Businesses may face situations that don’t fall under FMLA, Rhoden says. For example, if an employee needs time off to care for a loved one who is sick or a child forced to stay home due to school closings, organization leaders must develop a policy.
“The tricky part is that it will soon become clear that FMLA does not apply. So, what happens next?” he says. “Can they use sick time or vacation time for that? Or will you let them take unpaid time off?”
And then there are workers who may have to self-quarantine since they have traveled to a location where COVID-19 is more prevalent or may have come in contact with someone who has the virus. Rhoden says businesses should have a policy in place to address that concern.
“Some companies may just keep paying people as an incentive to have them stay home if they’re sick. You don’t want people coming into work sick just because they do not have paid time off,” he says.
The situation is changing quickly and Rhoden says it may be challenging for businesses to keep up with the latest regulations. “Even the experts keep updating their guidances and regulations, which is why it’s important for a planning team to meet daily. As an employer, you don’t know if some new rule will force your hand on making a decision,” he says. “There are no easy solutions in dealing with this, and even the best solutions may not be ideal.”
In mid-March, when Gov. Tony Evers declared a state of emergency in Wisconsin, J. J. Keller published a free whitepaper online filled with information for employers about what to do regarding COVID-19. “We’re doing our best to keep customers ahead of the curve and provide them with the best guidance possible.”
Pictures and stories of empty paper product shelves have become ubiquitous in the past several weeks. Mike Kawleski, public affairs manager for Georgia-Pacific Corp., says COVID-19 has affected the company’s business in varying ways.
G-P’s business includes its retail paper product offerings as well as similar products used outside the home at places such as restaurants, hotels and universities. While demand is booming on the retail side, it’s waning on the commercial side as people continue to stay home. The company does have inventory of products in stock, Kawleski says.
“From a production standpoint … we’ve always been a 24/7 operation, so we’re going to continue to do that,” he says. “Georgia-Pacific is doing its best to make sure that inventory gets out into the marketplace by good management of its distribution system.”
For many essential roles at G-P, people can’t work from home. To keep everyone safe, the company is taking extra precautions, including using technology to meet instead of gathering face to face, adding more hand sanitizer stations, cleaning high-touch surfaces more frequently and closing the cafeteria at its Broadway location.
Kawleski says anxiety among workers has increased. While people are used to cold and flu season, COVID-19 presents something new. Leaders meet daily to assess the ever-evolving situation and address worker concerns.
“It’s one of those situations we’ve been dealt, so we’re going to deal with what we’ve been dealt,” he says.”
Feeling financial pain
COVID-19 has the potential to send small businesses that rely on walk-in customers, such as restaurants, retailers and service providers, into the red. Evers asked the Small Business Development Centers to collect information on businesses that are struggling due to the virus. If enough businesses are affected, the governor could announce an Economic Injury Disaster Loan declaration, which would allow businesses to receive funds through the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act.
Bill Marklein, founder and CEO of Plymouth-based Employ Humanity, watched the state of his business go from robust to dire in the space of about a week. During those surreal seven or so days, email after email rolled in about event and conference cancellations.
“My whole vocation is speaking at conferences and large events, so definitely this has been devastating to my business,” he says.
Marklein says he supports all the decisions government and health care leaders have made. At the same time, he’s searching for ways to pivot. He’s begun promoting his online learning options and is looking at increasing his focus on webinars and other virtual meeting options.
“My focus is upskilling emotional intelligence, but if people are working at home, this is a huge opportunity for people to improve their skills,” he says.
To stay connected from afar, Marklein says employees should turn to video conferencing tools and the somewhat lost art of the phone call. Checking in can help, with many feeling scared and uncertain. During this time, people also should be mindful about how much time they spend taking in news and social media, he says.
One of Marklein’s focuses in his business is helping leaders develop their own emotional intelligence. He says this crisis offers leaders an opportunity to project calm, control and care for their people.
“I think it’s really critical to know everyone is in transition right now. Hopefully all of us as leaders can be a little more aware of that and make people the first priority,” he says.
Struggling small businesses like Marklein’s can reach out to their lenders for assistance. The Stephenson National Bank & Trust, for example, is providing loan relief to its customers. Charlie Cappaert, the bank’s chief lending officer, says business owners can come in to discuss how to revise their payment plans to alleviate the potential effects of the virus.
By being proactive, he says SNBT aims to mitigate the economic effect the virus may have on local businesses.
“We’re committed to doing whatever we can to help minimize any negative financial impact that this outbreak may have on businesses and consumers,” Cappaert says. “This is our opportunity to thank (our customers) and let them know that we stand behind them during the tough times.”
While it’s recommended all businesses have crisis communication plans in place, Cruz says the current situation shows why they are so needed.
“I continue to pound the pavement extolling the benefits to having a crisis communication plan in place. I’m not going to sugarcoat this, but it is an extremely challenging step for many organizations to understand why it is so important,” she says. “Here’s the deal: I would rather an organization take the time now to plan for a crisis versus when the crisis occurs. I can’t tell you how many calls I get when a crisis is underway. You will never get a restart with a crisis and will always be trying to catch up once the train has left the station, with lingering brand repercussions.”
Building a crisis communication plan is one of the most valuable actions a business can take, Cruz says, adding it’s not just something for the marketing and public relations team to work on — all departments must be at the table.
“It is so much easier to build a plan out now versus starting from ground zero when a crisis occurs,” Cruz says. “It’s a natural response that people aren’t thinking clearly when a crisis occurs, and it’s so much better to have a plan to reference and use as a starting point from the get-go.”
Crisis communication plans apply to any critical situation, whether it is a slowly developing situation or something that’s happening very quickly and can cover a variety of scenarios from recalls to legal matters, Cruz says. “COVID-19 is the perfect storm of a crisis on many different levels from so many different directions,” she says.
Keeping workers safe
To help stop the spread of COVID-19, government and health leaders have urged people to work from home to the greatest extent possible. Of course, some jobs simply don’t allow for that arrangement. For those who must report to work, Jackie Anhalt, chief nursing officer for ThedaCare, provided tips to help keep workers as protected as possible.
The steps for helping stop or slow the spread of COVID-19 don’t vary greatly from those people should follow during a typical cold and flu season, she says. They include:
· Urge workers to stay home if they’re coughing, sneezing or have any symptoms.
· If possible, put 6 feet of space between workers.
· Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops and doorknobs.
· Avoid unnecessary hugs and handshakes.
· Use hand sanitizer or wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. With the run on hand sanitizer, “I think we’ve forgotten we can use soap,” Anhalt says.
· If employees develop symptoms at work or think they’ve been exposed to the virus, send them home and advise them to call their doctor’s office. They will answer screening questions, which may prompt testing.
· “Not everybody that is ill needs to be tested. It’s very well they could have other symptoms that don’t warrant the test,” Anhalt says.
· If diagnosed, people should isolate themselves and stay out of work and the community for a minimum of 14 days and until they are free of fever and asymptomatic for 24 hours.
The situation is evolving quickly. Anhalt recommends employers keep up to date on guidelines by visiting cdc.gov/coronavirus and clicking on the Businesses & Employers tab.