By Jill Diamond
Attorney, Paragon Legal

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust employers around the globe into unprecedented, and certainly unanticipated, situations. Companies are facing tough choices about layoffs, furloughs, office closures, and a myriad of other issues that may have seemed inconceivable prior to COVID-19’s rapid spread and the resultant shelter-in-place orders. One potential area of concern for employers is the adaptability of employee handbook policies and procedures to the current work-from-home environment. Most employee handbooks were drafted without contemplation of an entirely remote workforce, and companies may need to flexibly evaluate how certain policies and procedures can translate into today’s reality.

First and foremost, employers should pay close attention to company policies and procedures pertaining to employee well-being, as well as interpersonal relationships and interactions. Given the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals and families, employers that offer an Employee Assistance Program should ensure that employees are able to effectively access those services remotely. Employee workplace relationships and interactions do not end simply because an office is closed. Indeed, remote work situations may lend themselves toward problems; as an example, harassment could be an issue given the perceived privacy and unobservability of the home office. Companies should ensure that human resources personnel are readily accessible to work-from-home employees if issues do arise.

Most employee handbooks were drafted without contemplation of an entirely remote workforce, and companies may need to flexibly evaluate how certain policies and procedures can translate into today’s reality.

Timekeeping, attendance, and overtime policies may require special consideration for employees who would normally have been onsite, particularly non-exempt employees. For example, a company’s standard practice may be to utilize an onsite clock-in/clock-out system that might be generally inaccessible to employees remotely. Employers with onsite-only systems will need to ensure that employees are able to access the system remotely, or provide an alternate method to accurately track and record attendance and work hours, as well as breaks as may be required by law. Companies have less control over work hours in a remote environment in which “the office” could potentially always be open. As such, employers should remind employees of any company policies requiring preapproval of overtime hours to prevent employees from working unauthorized overtime. Equally, companies should support and model appropriate boundaries in their communications with employees.

For employees using their own equipment in a home office, employers should be mindful of policies and laws placing responsibility on companies to reimburse workers for business expenses. As an example, California Labor Code section 2802 requires employers to reimburse employees for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee” in the course of performing the employee’s job duties or at the employer’s direction. Company business expense reimbursement policies may not contemplate a mandatory work-from-home scenario in which employees are using personal computers, telephones, home WiFi, and other equipment and services to perform their job duties while offices are closed. However, employers may find themselves obligated – whether legally, pursuant to their own policies, or both – to pay for what may be otherwise non-reimbursable expenditures.

The future of onsite work is uncertain in the face of COVID-19, and the possibility of extended and/or intermittent shelter-in-place restrictions. As a result, some companies and industries may be looking at a paradigm shift when it comes to how they view remote work. Several companies, such as Amazon and Google, have already announced extended remote working arrangements, while others, such as tech giants Facebook and Twitter, have announced an indefinite work from home option for a large portion of their workforces. In the short-term, employers must be mindful of how current policies and procedures can be successfully implemented for work-from-home employees, and should consider appropriate changes in order to maintain the viability of handbook policies in the long-term.