During Tonkon Torp’s 2021 Annual Labor & Employment Event, held virtually on June 9, partner Blerina Kotori kicked off the event with a discussion on reopening strategies and considerations. As Oregon nears the milestone of statewide opening, Blerina reflected on the knowledge gained, laws enacted, and lessons learned over the past year.
One of the essential elements of reopening is choosing how to collect information and feedback across the workforce while protecting confidentiality, complying with ADA and leave obligations, and following discrimination and harassment policy. This, along with what employers do with the responses, can have a large impact on employee engagement, recruitment, and retention in a post COVID-19 workplace.
When launching programs to bring employees back to the office, such as masking and vaccine mandates, Blerina stressed that it’s essential to treat employees equally using neutral business-related criteria, while also accommodating high-risk employees, older workers, and the religious beliefs of employees. Noting that a good manager can save a company when it comes to implementing policy, she stressed the importance of providing training on policies regarding the return to work plan, as well as how to document and respond to employee concerns. Whatever a business decision is regarding reinstatement, screening, testing, teleworking, or timekeeping, having clear policy and protocols to ensure consistent application is vital.
With COVID-19 related claims beginning to appear in court, this is an ideal time to review internal policies, refresh knowledge of leave laws and anti-discrimination law, and increase training to help the workforce come back together in a redefined workplace. She noted that when it comes to reinstatement claims, documentation is one of the best tools an employer can bring to their defense. Leaning on liability shield laws and waivers has not panned out for employers, and arguing business necessity is still unknown as a meaningful defense.
At the conclusion of her talk, Blerina encouraged companies to increase employee support tools, such as an employee assistance program, to counteract pandemic fatigue and stress. Provide channels to help them report concerns safely, convene COVID-19 committees, and continue to listen with empathy.
Blerina is a partner in Tonkon Torp's Labor & Employment Practice Group. She represents and defends employers in employment matters including discrimination, retaliation, harassment, wage and hour compliance, leave laws, and employment benefits.