Employers have critical role to prevent second wave of cases

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It is hard to remember what life was like before the coronavirus lockdown transformed our lives and work. It all started three months ago, when the National Basketball Association had become the first domino to fall. More professional sports leagues quickly followed, then the rest of the country shortly after. Administrators of professional sports leagues debate how to restart while keeping fans, athletes, team staff, and arena workers as safe as possible. As the debate drags on, it is now increasingly clear that short of a vaccine, an environment with zero risks simply does not exist.

It is not just the sports world striving to find answers. The same debate is taking place in every business, big or small, all across the country. Every workplace is different, and there is no uniform strategy that can work for every employer. There are many coronavirus screening options available, but each one comes with significant pros and cons. For workplaces that cannot offer or extend remote work, there is no guarantee of protection from the coronavirus no matter how many safeguards are in place.

To make things even more challenging, people have to get back to work. Despite extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, around one in five Americans still claim that they would not be able to afford an unexpected $400 expense. Another quarter say they are worried about not being able to put enough food on the table. That is according to the new survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that tracks the mental, physical, and financial health of Americans during a weekly basis amid the pandemic. So what can we do to move on?

We are at an inflection point where businesses face the decision to bring their employees back to work where, if they do, people can and likely will get sick, but if they do not, people will not be able to pay their bills. What business leaders and their workers need are data and tools to help assess the risk they are taking. Abigail Wozniak, the economist leading the study above, seeks to provide answers. Using the survey results, she estimated the number of employees that will be filtered out on any given day using different coronavirus screening methods. She focused with temperature taking, symptom checks, and risk factors that the workers present.

Wozniak highlighted a screening method that is used or floated about by many businesses in the United States, which is to have employees report their own temperatures or symptoms before entering the workplace. This approach minimizes the cost of conducting tests on behalf of employers, but comes with the significant risk of relying on the workers to be honest about their symptoms. Wozniak found that this was not happening across the country, as upward of 30 percent of workers decided to head back to work despite having three or more coronavirus symptoms present.

For many such workers, the fear is no longer over getting sick. It is about putting food on the table. People need to start earning money again, and they cannot do that if their employers will not allow them. So workers are understandably afraid to be honest about their symptoms. Wozniak found that workers who reported their symptoms to employers reported greater levels of separation from their jobs than those who did not. They fear that being truthful about their health will cost them their jobs, which they now cannot afford in an economy where jobs are few and far between.

The question employers have to ask themselves is this. What can I do to make my employees feel supported enough to be honest on their health? A good starting point, according to Wozniak, is putting protections such as paid leave in place to encourage workers to stay home if they are sick, notably for any workers who have underlying health conditions.

This is an important first step, but employers must use this opportunity to show that they are truly on the side of their employees. This is a moment of anxiety for employers and employees alike. Businesses that choose to go the extra mile to meet the needs of their employees, and not just their bottom line, are going to come out the other side of this pandemic much stronger than ever. Employees might then return this favor, knowing that their bosses went to bat for them in their greatest time of need.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Matthew Leger is a research analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Business Coronavirus Culture Finance Government Health Medicine Policy

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