We hear a lot about the “new normal,” but it will take some time and effort to figure out what that means for workplaces.

As municipalities reopen facilities and welcome back employees, here are some strategies to help manage staff well-being and human resources risks while everyone adjusts.

Employee concerns
Employees have already been experiencing health concerns – both mental and physical – during months of working from home, according to Steven Bernstein, account manager with AllOne Health, an employee assistance program provider in Natick. Quite suddenly back in March, people felt uprooted and disconnected.

“Employees went from fear of contracting the disease and bringing it home to their family, to suddenly dealing with all of the logistical, relational, and operational challenges of being in a new workplace,” he said.

Working at home may have intensified relationship stressors or created anxiety due to juggling work, child care and remote learning. Many individuals experienced stress, feelings of isolation, and depression.

“A lot of people were starting to think they were alone in having these feelings,” Bernstein said. “They’re definitely not alone.

“At the EAP, we’re listening and helping people normalize these experiences, as well as encouraging them to draw on their strengths during their adjustment back to the workplace, which will likely be very different from the place they left before.”

Helping employees return
As employees return to the workplace, it’s important to recognize that there will be new workplace norms, said Cally Ritter, a licensed independent clinical social worker with Positive Ripple Training and Consulting.

“With masks, physical distance, reduced numbers, and common spaces closed, employers will likely see a clash of risk tolerance levels,” she said.

These new norms will create new cultures, and it’s important for managers to set the tone by emphasizing concern for employees with compassion, openness and honesty.

Ritter advises managers to invite employees to offer their perspective and encourage them to adopt the “Platinum Rule,” which says that you should treat others the way that they want to be treated.

Ritter also suggests using “compassionate confrontation” – seeing the other’s viewpoint when working to resolve conflicts – as well as communicating consistently and regularly, setting expectations, holding employees accountable, and starting formal and informal meetings and gatherings with questions about the concerns and needs of employees.

Ritter recommends seeking employee input on office configuration and the return-to-work plan, and, if possible, giving employees control over when and how they return to work.

Managing HR risks
There are a number of legal considerations municipal managers should examine with legal counsel to ensure that the return-to-work plan doesn’t violate human resources policies and practices.

The following are some risks to avoid:
Americans with Disabilities Act discrimination claims: An employer may provide reasonable accommodations on a temporary basis or for the duration of the pandemic. Permitting an employee to work at home may be a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee.

National origin and race discrimination claims: Asian Americans have faced discrimination due to COVID-19’s origin in Wuhan, China. Harassment of employees from Asia or of Asian origin (or employees married to or associated with someone of Asian origin) must not be tolerated. Moreover, employees cannot demand that individuals who are from a certain country be restricted from the workplace, or that they not be required to work with such persons based solely on race or national origin.

Age discrimination claims: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act does not create a legal obligation to allow an older worker to telework. If an older worker has a disability that puts him or her at risk, however, then, under the ADA, the employer may permit the older worker to telework as an accommodation.

Pregnancy discrimination claims: Pregnant women are on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list of people who are at higher risk for severe illness if they contract COVID-19. An accommodation such as teleworking may be a reasonable accommodation for a pregnant worker.

Religious discrimination claims: An employee may request a religious accommodation, including refusal to get a vaccine or blood test, or to use modified personal protective equipment due to religious garb. If an employee objects to vaccines, testing, or the use of PPE on religious grounds, employers must only provide an effective, reasonable accommodation that does not cause more than a de minimis burden.

For more information, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.”

Managers are encouraged to work with their EAP provider, legal counsel, and wellness and HR staff on an ongoing basis to ensure a smooth transition for the organization, employees, and the community members that count on municipal services.

Written by Stephen Batchelder, MIIA’s Director of Claims Operations, and Lin Chabra, MIIA’s Member Services Manager.