Protect Your Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic

( Jennifer Shike )

By April Viehmann and Josh Flint, The Maschhoffs

Coronavirus continues to have an extreme impact on the health of the U.S. population and its economy. In recent weeks, COVID-19 has started to lay waste to the country’s pork producers.

News reports continue to surface about pork packing facilities’ worker populations that have been directly impacted by COVID-19. And, while there have not been widespread corresponding reports of outbreaks across the country’s rural hog farms, producers would do well to focus on how to protect their employees.

Start with the policies currently in place. Does your production company have adequate leave policies that will allow you to protect your employees’ jobs? A COVID-19 diagnosis will likely place an employee off work for 14 days, as many doctors follow standard CDC guidance. This is a much longer period of time than influenza or other common illnesses. 

Most companies have a number of leave options for their employees. However, the big question with COVID-19 is job protection versus income protection. For example, the Family Medical Leave Act provides job protection for employees who qualify, but does not provide income protection. Additionally, many companies offer a Paid Time Off program. Yet, PTO likely must be accrued over time. This could leave recent hires in a precarious position if a fraction of the recovery time is covered by PTO. Lastly, many companies provide a short-term disability benefit, for which coronavirus-related illnesses may qualify. (Check with your provider.)  

Provide Guidance via HR
In addition to ensuring your leave policies will provide adequate coverage, you must go the extra step to ensure your Human Resources team knows how to provide guidance around how to utilize these policies, including coordination of all the benefits available to employees.

COVID-19 is extremely contagious. This, combined with a high mortality rate makes protection of employees a top priority. It’s vital that guidance on how to deploy these policies is closely tied to CDC recommendations. For example, prior to COVID-19, many employees may have been content to take fever-reducing medications and still come in to work. 

Today, it is incumbent upon HR professionals to work closely with supervisors to ensure that employees with symptoms remain at home until they can obtain guidance from a medical professional.  This also includes helping employees navigate through options, such as seeking treatment via a telehealth service and understanding their medical insurance options. In short, we must be more conservative when it comes to respecting symptoms that may be related to Covid-19 and prepared to help employees through these uncertain situations.

Another facet to consider is travel restrictions. Many companies have restricted business travel during this pandemic. And, while we do not advise restricting personal travel, companies may provide guidance regarding return-to-work provisions following personal travel. Again, this goes back to ensuring the other animal care professionals are protected. 

Along those same lines, many companies have adopted stricter visitor policies. For example, at our Carlyle office, we now require all incoming and outgoing shipments to be placed outside of the inner set of entrance doors, which now remain locked during business hours.

Focus on Retention
As an industry, we must do everything we can to focus on retaining our employees. The loss of non-critical business during this pandemic has created a significant spike in unemployment. In mid-April, The Wall Street Journal projected unemployment to hit 13% by June. This is a huge increase from the historic low of 3.5% in February. 

On the surface, this would appear to be a boon for critical industries that have jobs to fill. However, the U.S. government has enhanced unemployment benefits significantly in the wake of the COVID-19  outbreak. This means many out of work Americans may take a wait and see approach. 

In addition, many of those who were laid off in the wake of COVID-19 are from completely different economic sectors, such as the restaurant industry. It will typically take a job seeker a number of months before he/she begins looking to make a career change. Plus, the training gap for many of these workers is likely to be high if they transition to animal production. Now is the time to focus on keeping your labor force engaged and retained.

Now more than ever, communication must be a priority. People will have questions. You have to adopt communication practices that provide clear guidance in a timely fashion.

At The Maschhoffs, we have established a COVID-19 task force that brings together stakeholders from a number of vital business functions. This group meets on a daily basis to discuss changes, contingency plans and communication. 

While COVID-19 is likely dominating many producers’ conversations today, businesses must continue to operate. This is one of the biggest challenges posed by COVID-19: ensuring there is a balance between addressing this virus, while simultaneously continuing to operate the business. As we have seen in recent weeks, for many packing plants, operating plans have changed significantly as a result of this virus. Be sure to work out your answers to those “what if” questions in advance. 

More from Farm Journal's PORK:

Pig Farmers Exhaust All Options to Avoid Unprecedented Decisions

Pulling the Lever: Should You Slow Down Pig Growth?

USDA APHIS Establishes Coordination Center to Help Livestock Producers

Herd Immunity in Pigs: A Case Study for Getting America Back to Work