The Questions Your Company Must Answer as Coronavirus Moves Out of China

2/28/20

Ten days ago, I wrote about coronavirus (COVID-19) and got my lowest blog readership ever.  I focused on China and on personal health and safety.  Maybe the regular news coverage was already enough, or perhaps we were fed up with the issue.

This week, it is very different.

COVID-19 has shifted from China to dozens of countries, including a major outbreak in Italy that has caused Serie A games to be played behind closed doors and postponed the Ireland vs. Italy rugby match.  Many experts say it is just a matter of time before an outbreak in the U.S.

I’m not going to talk today about travel bans, 14-day periods, and hand-washing—I’m going to list the questions your company needs to ask relating to three things:

  • Dealing with employee issues outside of China;

  • Supply chain continuity, cost controls and layoffs, and short-time work; and 

  • Return-to-work issues in China.

Answers will differ by company, and certainly won’t fit in 600 words!

Questions to ask outside of China—you may want to be consistent, but the legal answers will vary by country.  

  • Can employees refuse to work due to fear of being infected?  (In most places, there are laws in place around the right not to work in an unsafe environment.)

  • What steps do you need to take to assure a safe environment?

  • Do you need to consult with trade unions or works councils? (Quite probably in most Western European countries.)

  • Can employees insist on working from home? 

  • Can employees refuse to travel or to attend large meetings?

  • How do you track where people have traveled on business or vacation and how do you deal with their return?  Do you have the right to insist on a reply?

  • How do you deal with employees showing symptoms in the workplace and those who insist they want to work?

  • How do you manage whistle-blowing or refusals to work with particular individuals?

Supply chainhow will you deal with layoffs and short-time working, profit, revenue, and cost challenges?

China is so engaged in the global supply chain that most businesses will be adversely impacted very quickly, if not already.  I’m assuming that your supply chain folks are on top of business continuity plans insofar as they can be.

  • What are the rules in each country in which you operate on short-time working, changed working practices and layoffs?  What are the pay and benefits implications?

  • What will be your information and consultation requirements on the work environment and on any employment disruption?

  • Should you be engaging with unions and works councils right now?

  • What state support will there be for pay and benefit continuity?

  • Are you taking broader actions across the organization as a whole to control costs or support payments to affected employees who are not working (e.g., delaying or reducing pay reviews or bonus payments)?

This week in China—a quick update:

The return to work is being complicated by local rules and regulations, but most companies are getting past this.  The issues have now moved on to more practical ones:

  • Refusals to share dormitory space;

  • Scheduling of meal breaks to provide more physical space between people who need to remove masks to eat;

  • Work arrangements that require people cooperate in close proximity;

  • Assuring contractors are checked as rigorously as employees (a company transport driver infected a number of employees last week and resulted in large numbers of quarantines); and

  • Whistle-blowing on individuals and work areas appearing on social media, resulting in unrest.

Be prepared in China for employee disruption.

If your crisis teams haven’t yet considered these questions, maybe they should.