Return to Work and School Reopening Pose Complex Challenges Ahead

Due to COVID-19, the challenging months ahead will require employers to be creative in order to retain valued employees
John J. Sarno

Since March 21 when non-essential retail open to the public closed in New Jersey, employers and employees alike had to immediately embrace new ways of working while remaining safe, healthy and productive. While first and foremost a public health emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic has also wreaked havoc within the workplace. Unemployment claims soared. Emergency family and medical leave, emergency sick pay, emergency unemployment compensation insurance, emergency job protection and more were enacted. All this happening at a time when employers were scrambling to establish telework protocols and to ensure the safety of the workers who were still reporting to the worksite.

After months of arduous effort, exemplary leadership by Gov. Murphy, his administration and the heroic work of health care workers and others, an estimated 1.8 million tests for active COVID-19 infections have been conducted in the state, including negatives. And thanks to the discipline and creativity of many employers, we are now holding steady on virtually all major COVID-19 measures, including the number of new cases and overall hospitalizations.

The Employers Association of New Jersey (EANJ) has tracked the trajectory of the pandemic since the beginning, surveying, interviewing and speaking to employer-members on a daily basis.

Assuming that the virus does not spread, most EANJ members say that they are ready for a phased integration of employees who have been working remotely or who have been furloughed. Using this as a sample, we are talking about over one million workers who need to be integrated back into the workplace. Every EANJ member reports that they will be continuing safety protocols for the foreseeable future, including face masks, social distancing, flexible scheduling, personal protective equipment and on-site COVID-19 screenings and assessments. Even so, return to work decisions are difficult, as individuals in certain categories, older or with medical conditions, may be advised to stay out of work for longer periods. Indeed, pre-pandemic, the percentage of people ages 55 and over in the workforce was at an all-time high.

Schools Critical to Economic Recovery

A successful transition to public school attendance will, however, be the next critical step in the state’s economic recovery. There are nearly one million households in the state with children and about eight in 10 of them have school-age children, according to the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development.

Come September, all students are eligible for full-time remote learning. For those children who may go back, they will be attending blended classes, partially in-person and partially online.

According to a recent poll by Fairleigh Dickenson University, New Jerseyans are nearly evenly split over the prospect of schools reopening in the fall, as planned. Overall, 46% approve a return to in-person instruction with appropriate social safety measures in place, while 42% believe education should continue on a remote basis until a vaccine or effective treatment is found for the disease.

About half of EANJ members say that they are prepared to continue to allow some employees to work from home until the virus subsides. However, working from home has been a privilege for mostly higher paid employees who can perform work remotely while “essential workers” such as production workers, drivers, administrative clerks and others who make less money bear the costs of commuting and the risks of an unsafe workplace. And who are essential workers? From the cashier to the emergency room nurse to the drugstore pharmacist to the home health aide taking the bus to check on her older patient, the soldier on the front lines is most likely a woman.

In fact, according to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, one in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential, from the emergency ward to the shop floor. Nonwhite women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else.

The pandemic has laid bare disparities in our state in so many ways. Demographic data show the virus is hitting some age groups, races and ethnicities harder than others. Unemployment has had a disparate impact on certain groups and so have business closures.

For employers, how these inherent inequities in their return to work strategies are harmonized will be important in setting the overall business culture and whether all employees are able to be equal contributors to the state’s recovery. How our essential workers will be supported and rewarded after the pandemic recedes will be one of the great issues of this new decade. From wages and paid family leave, to health care to skills training, these and much more are on the table now. 

Emergency Family Leave Set to Expire

Of immediate concern is the expiration of the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act at the end of this year. The federal law allowed tens of thousands of working parents to take paid time off due to school and day care closures, or when classes were attended online from home. While New Jersey workers can use limited earned sick leave, if they have it, and New Jersey’s family leave law without pay but with a threshold trigger of 30 employees, the law excludes nine out of 10 employers that employ half the workforce; nor does Family Leave Insurance apply when a parent needs to be home when a minor is home attending online classes. Unless new legislation is passed, many employers and employees will be faced with making the difficult choice between family and work, leading to more unemployment claims as the economy struggles to recover.

Remaining Flexible

Employers will need to continue to be creative if they want to retain valued employees during the challenging months ahead. The fall and winter flu season looms. Other states are a drag on our economy. Half of EANJ members report that they expect full staffing within three months but one in four say they are well-equipped to continue remote work and are comfortable doing so for the foreseeable future. There is no question that remaining flexible is the best strategy.

For EANJ surveys, best practices, model polices, webinars and more, go to: https://www.eanj.org/return-work-resources-employers