As offices contemplate a return to more complete work capacities this fall, CPAs in public and private practice need to put in place as many office protocols as possible related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) keeps changing, CPAs will have to be aware of ways to maintain efficient and safe workspaces, how best to retain employees and what’s needed to avoid costly lawsuits.
Standards should be set regarding staff attendance; flexibility on work-from-home plans; mask wearing, whether optional or mandatory in common areas; the use of temperature checks; how to handle visitors; and how to enforce such policies.
If employers are concerned about what’s acceptable, it’s best to incorporate more than what the law requires, explained Michael N. Morea, Esq., founder and managing member of Morea Law LLC, at an NJCPA Bergen Chapter meeting in July. For businesses that want staff to be fully vaccinated, he explains, there are ways to approach that other than mandatory vaccinations, which might hurt employee morale. Many employers, he says, are using incentive programs. “You can highlight the incentive program. You are not mandating vaccines, you are trying to incentivize your employees to get vaccinated. I like that better; it’s better for morale,” he said.
Even if employees are part-time or consultants, their consulting agreements should adhere to the same office policies as should guests, once such a policy is established, according to Morea. And that goes both ways. If CPAs are doing onsite audits or visiting clients’ offices, they need to follow their clients’ protocols, not their company’s standards, when they visit.
Here are some tips Morea recommends for CPAs to open fully in New Jersey:
- Keep written documentation on all protocols for at least three years — don’t end up in a “she said, he said” situation.
- Have employees sign off on being told the protocols or keep the email showing that it was sent to everyone.
- Have a COVID-19 safety plan in place on when employees are allowed to go to the office and when they should stay out.
- Create a separate COVID-19 stand-alone policy. Employee handbooks should be updated.
- Don’t ask employees whether they are vaccinated — that can create exposure for owners, particularly if an employee discloses a medical issue.
- Understand employers can require that all employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine but must make exceptions if an employee has a disability, religious or other medical reason for not getting it. If that is the case, an employer has to provide a reasonable accommodation for that employee.
- Don’t ask “Why not?” if an employee is unvaccinated — it can expose the company to lawsuits and violate an employee’s rights.
- Be aware that there has to be a documented medical reason not to come back to work, not just “afraid of COVID.”
- Know that businesses are allowed to require masks indoors even though the mask mandate has been lifted in New Jersey. Unvaccinated employees need to have the ability to wear masks if they want to.
- Recommend that unvaccinated guests to the office wear a mask.
- Understand if an employee is not complying in common areas of workspaces once protocol is established, that is a basis for disciplinary action, including termination.
- Retain the office ventilation system that may have been put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Office protocols, however, are mainly required to keep the employee safe, not his or her entire family. So, it is not likely to stand up in court if an employee sues over a possible exposure to COVID-19 at work that made their grandmother, who lives at home with them, sick, he explained.
For information about the NJCPA Bergen Chapter or other NJCPA chapters, visit njcpa.org/chapters.