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Protecting Continuity, Workforce, and Physical Assets During the Pandemic

The past several weeks have been nearly indescribable — a combination of personal, professional, and economic stress has impacted nearly every person on Earth. The shelter-at-home and work-from-home protocols have, in many cases, belied the unprecedented number of major daily challenges and changes facing managers and executives across all industries.

The regularity of “fire-fighting” has many professionals operating on adrenaline, but adrenaline eventually ends and leads to exhaustion. This is particularly grim in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic that is expected to continue at least several more weeks, with the fallout to extend far, far beyond that.

As difficult as it may be to detach from the more immediate urgencies, it is critical that all managers and executives (whether at a multinational or sole proprietorship) take a beat and begin to prepare for the dramatic long-term economic shifts that are about to rock every industry. These leaders will need to consider issues that extend beyond traditional regulatory compliance, mitigation of liability, and contractual attornment and strike at the heart of their operations. 

Below we outline three critical areas of concern and the actions wise managers and executives should take to give them a solid foundation. Even as global economies optimistically look to “reopen,” these areas remain crucial to prospering in the “new normal,” which, for the foreseeable future, likely includes distancing safeguards, intermittent sheltering-at-home, and privacy restraints, which can lead to inconsistent and costly disruptions within an entity. 

Business continuity, without staff  

Traditional business continuity plans focus on how a business’s staff can continue to operate the business in the absence of a physical office space (e.g., in the case of a fire, flooding, etc.). However, like the novel virus being fought, any future normalcy will be a novel one, and that includes contingencies made without staff. 

Although many businesses have been able to adapt to the pandemic through work-from-home arrangements, for many entities, operations cannot continue without a base minimum number of staff. Even as stay-at-home restrictions loosen, employers might not be able to have the same number of workers present in the workplace as currently configured. Businesses vulnerable to this risk should consider:

Legality of operations

There must be a clear determination as to whether it is appropriate to continue to operate the business. Indeed, many beauty, entertainment, and non-urgent wellness services, for example, are being restricted from operating under many government guidelines and/or gubernatorial executive orders. Those orders, we now understand, may extend, in some form, well into the future.

Quorum

It is also important to determine the threshold number (and specialties) of staff needed to safely operate the business. If such number (and type) of staff, plus sufficient redundancies to avoid a sudden halt if any single staff falls ill or is unavailable, are not guaranteed to be available for the foreseeable future, then the current business should be considered to be mothballed. Certainly, human resources (HR) and your labor and employment counsel will be key to ensuring proper notice and support of any furloughed staff. 

Mothballing

In the event a business is mothballed, managers should consider: 

  • The process and timing for disengaging and protectively storing machinery and equipment. Specialized scientific or manufacturing equipment may require lengthy or specific “shut-down” protocols to avoid damage. 
  • How and when to give unambiguous and advance notice to (in order) staff, customers, and other stakeholders (e.g., vendors who are scheduled to deliver, etc.). 
  • Identifying dangerous or valuable assets that need to be gathered and protected (e.g., controlled medications, certain chemicals, weapons, petty cash, and precious metals and other high-end merchandise). 
  • Canceling or suspending subscriptions (e.g., newspapers, informational services, water deliveries, etc.) and turning off utilities and controlling temperatures to avoid unnecessary expenses. 
  • Identifying any dangerous perishable products (e.g., anything from emptying breakroom refrigerators to food and beverage inventory, biological material, and manufacturing materials with short expiry dates). 6. Determining whether and how multiple business locations could and should be aggregated (e.g., a franchise or bank operating fewer locations with a blend of staff from other branches). 

Safety

Businesses need to source and supply staff with sufficient protective material (gloves and masks, at a minimum) and resources, including clear and frequent communication, to safely do their jobs. Further, if staff is expected to be permitted to commute to and from a site under an applicable executive order, individuals should be provided with “papers,” evidencing that ability, including business contact information.

Incentives

As more active workforce face threats to their safety and the safety of their families, strikes, use of PTO, and walk-offs are more common. Employers should consider away-from-home accommodations, hazard pay, or additional benefits or bonuses to support the staff that keeps the lights on. This is especially true for healthcare workers and those who interact with the public. Farmers, grocers, and ICU staff are commodities that necessitate investment.

Protection of workforce 

While healthcare providers are accustomed to a certain level of risk in their work, they are now facing unprecedented levels of stress and resource constraints. Healthcare executives must address these concerns, acknowledging the risks to workers’ families with genuine resolve. This may include providing temporary housing, offering estate planning for peace of mind, and describing the supply chain deliveries and expectations. 

Businesses in other industries will be taking on this kind of employee communication for the first time. Leaders must ensure that staff have sufficient protective material to safely do their jobs. Apart from the risk of exposure, an increasing number of staff are facing workplace aggression or threats — panic-buying of food and disposables, for example, have placed staff in potentially harmful situations. 

As economic circumstances become more dire, levels of crime, including shoplifting and theft, are likely to increase. Moreover, an increasingly desperate public may exhibit more belligerent tendencies when confronted with shortages or buying limits, higher prices, and exposure to an infected public. Protecting staff may include providing security escorts and clear training on how to handle potentially violent situations. 

Unfortunately, as layoffs or redundancies increase, workplace threats and violence may also increase. Therefore, HR also will need support and resources to ensure safe termination processes and be able to offer access to programs or resources that support struggling or unemployed individuals.  

Protection of physical assets Managers and executives must safeguard assets from viral contact and contamination, theft, and damage. 

Soap and masks

All staff should observe recommended hygienic practices of handwashing and wearing gloves and masks before handling anything (from food to boxes), that has been or will be touched by another person (or animal). Again, businesses must ensure that staff have sufficient protective material to safely do their jobs or provide the appropriate guidance, in the event such shortages remain, for staff to understand the use of personal attire.

Behind the counter

Businesses with retail components may put expensive (e.g., gift cards) or limited-supply items (e.g., prescription medicines) behind locked panels, out of reach of customers, and post signage reminding customers not to touch merchandise (which may range from vegetables, clothing, books, etc.).

Lock it down

Secure physical structures by installing additional visible security cameras (including “dummy cameras” as a deterrent) and eliminating blind spots. Sufficient lighting, adequate locks on all windows, doors, and gates, minimizing the number of access points, posting clear signage warning of trespassing near property borders, and identifying security measures in place (e.g., CCTV, security alarm, etc.) are key. 

Businesses should ensure that radon, smoke, motion, and other detectors are in place and functional. Consider the use of drones, where permitted, to remotely monitor locations in addition to having regular, but randomized, “sweeps” to identify any threats or breaches.

Prepare for theft and hackers

Prepare for increased shoplifting and theft, including by staff, who may suffer from stress about their personal or familial security. Also prepare the infrastructure and staff for virtual security threats and take protective security measures and sweeps. During the pandemic, there has been a significant uptick in phishing and ransomware attacks, including those that are a threat to national security in targeting both those in positions of power and those most vulnerable.

Final thoughts

The aggressive spread of COVID-19 has already demonstrated that many businesses are struggling to adapt to a scenario they never imagined. As difficult as it may be to move past paralysis, now is the time for managers and executives to face the realities and take bold action to safeguard their businesses under these difficult circumstances.  


For more advice and information on the coronavirus pandemic, visit ACC's Coronavirus Response Resource Page.

About the Authors

Katie SchillingKatherine Miler Schilling is the associate general counsel in University of Michigan’s Office of the Vice President and General Counsel and supports Michigan Medicine. [email protected]


Sara ShantiSara Helene Shanti is a partner in Benesch Law’s healthcare practice. [email protected]


Adam Al ShantiAdam Omar Al-Shanti is the founder of Al-Shanti, LLC, a healthcare and technology consultancy with offices in Dubai and San Francisco. [email protected]



The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.