The beginning of May is looking to be a lot like the beginning of April in the variety of state COVID-19 protection orders. Except those stay-at-home orders are now being rescinded, reduced, or extended on a state-by-state basis. As an essential industry, food businesses have continued operating through the pandemic, but there is still a great deal of recovery the industry will need to be working through – both for the eventual return of non-essential workers and acclimation to a new normal.
Regardless of the edicts of your governor on the phases of reopening in your state – or perhaps even more importantly if a phased-in approach is not being taken – it is critical that you continue to follow recommendations of public health experts for the protection of both your workers and your business continuity.
This includes the continuation of the four primary worker protection tactics: wellness screening, social distancing and employee hygiene, enhanced cleaning and sanitation, and non-surgical mask usage. (See TAG’s COVID-19 Resources page for more on each of these.) Additionally, we recommend that you develop a plan that includes a phased-in approach of the workers — gradually bringing back those who are most essential and/or unable to work from home, and, at least initially, continuing to allow those who can work from home to do so.
The plan also should include communication for those who are coming back – both in management and on the line – to detail the protection practices that have been put in place and explaining why they are important. It can be beneficial to provide some communication in writing to employees prior to their return, then reinforcing it when they are back in the facility.
We need to think about the gradual return to work as bringing back the “lower risk” individuals first and doing it in a way that we can contain the controls to make sure they are working, and we don’t get an unmanageable bounce in illness rates.
As workers are brought back in, new plans will likely need to be developed for social-distancing parameters to account for the increased number of people. Consider staggering shifts and breaks (if you’ve not already done so), assigning different “in-office/at-home” working days for administrative workers, setting in-only and out-only doors, etc., to help maintain this. Limits also should be retained on visitors and travel, allowing only that which is essential in both cases, and defining “essential.”
While developing your back-to-work plans and communication will take even more time from a likely already stressed workforce, it is important that sufficient time is taken for its development, as this is not a short-term situation. The most optimistic predictions see COVID-19 worker protections as continuing into fall, while pessimistic outlooks see a new spike following recovery. Either way, there is no expectation that life will return to the pre-pandemic normal anytime soon, and maybe some things will change for the long term. Masks and distancing will become a way of life for many, working from home is likely to gain new proponents among both workers and businesses, and we can hope that those who had previously had a weak policy on worker illness have realized the detriment of doing so.
There will, unquestionably, be businesses that do not make it to the other side of the pandemic, but business, as a whole, will recover. Your employees are your most valuable asset, and they will be worried and need confidence that you are setting up the programs to look after them. The more you protect your workers and your business during the virus, and the better you prepare to do so during recovery, the more likely you are to survive – and thrive.
TAG has developed a COVID-19 Toolkit, including a section on recovery, and can provide more extensive support and consultation through our COVID-19 Retainer Package. Contact us for more information.
About The Acheson Group (TAG)
Led by former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods ,Dr. David Acheson, TAG is a food safety and public health consulting group that provides guidance and expertise worldwide for companies throughout the food supply chain. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, TAG’s public health and infectious disease expertise has been brought to the forefront to assist food businesses weather the increased challenges of employee protection, food safety, and business continuity. With in-depth industry knowledge combined with real-world experience and advanced virtual technologies, TAG’s team of experts helps companies assess their unique situation, address gaps, and deploy best practices to more effectively mitigate risks, improve operational efficiencies, and protect their brand. ,www.AchesonGroup.com