10 Things That Keep HR Pros Awake at Night (COVID-19 Edition)

This article, written by James Reidy, Sheehan Phinney, and Rachel Brooks Reidy, was originally published by HR Daily Advisor and can be found here.

HR pros wear many hats. Since March 2020, they have been at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to their many other tasks, they have needed to coordinate furloughs and layoffs, stay up to date with the latest health guidance, understand and implement coronavirus-related federal and state laws and regulations, introduce COVID-19 screening and workplace policies and procedures, and develop vaccination and other safety procedures. They are also the sounding board for questions and complaints. And there were lots of each over the last year or so.

Nevertheless, HR pros have been incredibly resilient. That said, they are still human and aren’t immune from workplace stress. Based on a recent survey of HR leaders, we’ve come up with a list of issues that keep them awake at night. This is the first installment in a two-part series on 10 things that keep HR professionals awake at night (the COVID-19 edition).

Complying with OSHA Safety Guidelines

The Occupational Safety and Health Act’s (OSHA) general duty clause took on new meaning over the past year as employers scrambled to comply with changing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance about workplace safety measures and keep employees safe from COVID-19 exposure.

The process involved daily screening, masking requirements, one-way corridors, social distancing, monitoring room density, no shared equipment, and single-use bathrooms, not to mention closing down lunchrooms and allowing no shared food.

Keeping up with COVID Rules, Recommendations

Keeping up with CDC guidance, which evolved over the last 18 months, was tough enough. But when state mandates and guidelines were added to the mix, HR pros had to stay current and answer seemingly endless questions from the C-Suite to the loading dock.

For employers with operations in more than one state, the challenge was daunting because most states had different COVID-19 policies and standards.

Surveying Employees on Vaccination

Surveying employees’ attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccines has been a challenge since December 2020, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first one. It has been even busier in recent months with the spike in COVID-19 variant cases and as more employers considered vaccine mandates. HR pros report some employees either refuse to respond or raise objections to surveys ranging from Health Insurance Portability and Accessibility Act (HIPAA) and other privacy concerns to doubts about the shots’ efficacy, safety, and side effects.

We know of one HR professional who has simply referred employees’ complaints to Dr. Fauci. We’re not sure how she got his e-mail address.

Monitoring Employee Social Media Posts About Workplace

This is nothing new, but with more employees working remotely over the last year or so, many have been more vocal on social media about:

  • Their employer’s workplace policies especially with regard to COVID-19;
  • Coworkers’ conduct and their own personal beliefs about the virus’ origin and the vaccine; and
  • Remote work, their own return to the workplace, and related matters.

The problem is many employees identify their employer in their social media profile. Although most CEOs and CFOs are intolerant of employee complaints on social media (because of the potential adverse impact on the organization), some comments are actually protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), making for a difficult conversation with senior managers who might want a person disciplined for the posts.

Wading Through Exemptions to Vaccine Mandates

Soon after the first COVID-19 shots were approved, the EEOC offered guidance saying employers needed to consider an employee’s medical or religious exemptions to the vaccines. Medical exemptions must be accompanied by some sort of verification from a healthcare provider. Religious exemptions need to identify and be supported a specific religious faith or doctrine as well as something that would attest to the person’s sincerely held religious belief.

While HR pros are accustomed to discussing reasonable accommodations, the COVID-19-related requests have taken the talks to a whole new level.

Figuring Out Accommodations for Unvaccinated

Even if you were inclined to approve an employee’s request for an exemption from a COVID-19 vaccine, the next part of the analysis involves whether the individual could still perform the essential job functions with some sort of reasonable accommodation. In other words, could the unvaccinated employee still perform the job.

A reasonable accommodation could be something as simple as wearing an approved mask or other personal protective equipment (PPE), working remotely, transferring to another position, or coming up with another creative solution. It also could mean, given the nature of the job and work environment, no reasonable accommodation is possible. Therefore, the employee might have to be furloughed or terminated.

Managing Remote Work Requests

The rush to equip employees for remote work at the pandemic’s outset has been likened to packing school lunch boxes, stocking backpacks, and ensuring bus pickups for 200 students at the same time. That now seems like the easy part.

With many employers (at least before the recent spike in COVID-19 cases) preparing to return to the workplace, they also experienced significant resistance from employees who claimed they had a need to or simply prefer to work at home. Recent surveys suggest as many as one-third of employees who are required to return to the workplace will seek employment elsewhere.

Addressing Stress, Depression, Wellness

COVID-19 is of course a serious and potentially deadly virus. Because of the isolation, fear of the virus, and financial distress from uncertainty about work, there has been a reported significant increase in employees’ mental health and substance abuse issues.

Although many employers have employee assistance programs (EAPs), employees are often reluctant to take advantage of them. Group health plans have reported an increase in employee claims. With healthcare priorities focused on COVID-19 cases, however, many mental health and substance abuse issues haven’t been addressed. Now as companies seek to have employees return to work, some report they simply cannot do so.

Recruiting and Retaining Employees

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed some businesses and stopped others altogether, but most managed to operate in one form or another. Augmented unemployment benefits and economic aid in the form of stimulus checks were much needed for many who were out of work or underemployed in 2020.

With the economy on a path to recovery, unemployment rates have dropped from record highs to near-record lows. Recent reports noted there are more than 10 million unfilled jobs in the United States. HR pros are challenged to retain existing employees and find the best new hires to meet business needs. It’s one of their greatest challenges today.

Mediating Vaccination Disputes

Although employers have increasingly considered implementing vaccine mandates for their workforce, most are still content with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated employees as long as (1) everyone follows workplace safety policies and (2) the unvaccinated workers wear masks and follow special policies unique to them and their position (e.g., periodic testing, social distancing, travel restrictions, and so on).

In recent months, however, we’ve seen several reported disputes between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees over issues related to comments about the vaccine. Some vaccinated workers have questioned the sincerity of the unvaccinated’s exemptions, challenged their remote work accommodations, and suggested they create a workplace safety risk. Like all other work disputes, HR pros are at the center trying to restore order and keep the peace (while still complying with evolving safety policies).