HR and compliance pros have struggled to keep up with ever-changing regulations over the past year. Now, return-to-work plans raise myriad compliance concerns. ADP’s Ellen Feeney discusses 2021 workforce trends as businesses reopen.
No matter how diligent a company has been in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many HR professionals have struggled to keep pace with rapidly evolving guidance and legislation. Employers have had to stay on top of federal initiatives, state plans and local regulations to implement the latest benefits, protections and restrictions for both themselves and their employees. These rules come with the added level of difficulty that they are often subject to change.
During the course of the pandemic and the resulting economic recession, many businesses had to navigate the complexities of reducing hours, furloughs, layoffs, slowed production or even complete shutdowns of locations or entire businesses. Other companies tried to offset the uncertainty by offering bonuses, hazard pay or even therapy. As the world reopens, businesses will have to decide for themselves how and when to reopen and rehire, or when they should scale back their pandemic-related benefits.
The regulations surrounding such decisions and the case-by-case demands of different businesses have placed HR in the spotlight. There’s no question that compliance demands will continue to be a key priority for businesses as they navigate forward amid dynamic business conditions.
The jobs recovery has been completely unscripted in the face of this global pandemic. ADP Chief Economist @NelaRichardson takes us through the storyline of this unscripted recovery with potential plotlines and plot twists along the way. Learn more: https://t.co/1GtNZjaWeL pic.twitter.com/DG9MEbs82m
— ADP (@ADP) March 8, 2021
When surveying employers with 1,000+ employees at the onset of the pandemic, ADP found that 68 percent said they needed guidance on government relief programs, including direct monetary assistance, low-interest business loans, enhanced unemployment assistance and tax relief and deferrals. In those initial months, ADP analyzed more than 2,000 legislative updates associated with COVID-19 across the globe in order to provide businesses with the guidance they needed to navigate compliance and seek essential relief.
Faced with the rapid pace of change, employers are still actively seeking guidance. ADP data shows that employer calls for guidance on compliance questions jumped more than 1,500 percent over last year.
2021 Workforce Trends and Returning to the Workplace
The global health event accelerated a future of work in the making, including the rise of the gig economy and the added flexibility of working from home, evolutions that add complexity to compliance. As businesses bring employees back to the workplace or increase their on-site staff, they need to closely follow guidance from local, state and federal officials to determine the right approach and keep employees safe and productive. They need to likewise be prepared with answers to tough questions from employees on topics such as vaccination requirements, PPE mandates, hybrid work options and employee leave programs as employees themselves adapt to changing circumstances.
The danger posed by the virus will gradually lessen, but that does not mean it will disappear. Exposure and infection still will be realities, and leave policies will continue to be an important consideration. Organizations must develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan, educate their workforce and establish a communications plan. Employers need to stay flexible but compliant, carefully following updated policies and practices from the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), CDC guidelines, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), executive orders and state and local public health authorities, as well as industry-specific guidelines to stay in accordance with state and federal laws.
Employers should keep in mind that just because employees are returning to the workplace does not necessarily mean all former policies and routines have been restored. “Normalcy” might look different post-pandemic for the business and certainly the employees. Managers should keep an eye on the needs of their staff, especially with regard to time off. Some workers might still have child care limitations or relatives they’re caring for, while others might be coping with the impact of a stressful year. Even if employees themselves are doing well, they might need time off to care for a loved one who is suffering from the effects of the virus. Managers need to be aware of and sympathetic to this uncertainty so they can support the employee while simultaneously accounting for business needs to keep operations running.
With businesses’ return-to-work strategies likely in flux to uniquely reflect their business needs, staff readiness and local health data, it’s still vital for businesses to make sure employees know what to expect as early as possible. Keeping workers in the informational loop gives them the time they need to make personal plans, such as for child care or commuting. The information stream also makes people feel valued by the business and confident that the workplaces they are returning to are safe and secure.
It’s also important to not let efforts to maintain a safe work environment lessen as time goes on. Companies need to commit to monitoring compliance and keeping employees informed on any changes to policies or procedures. Within these efforts, laws governing the workplace, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), still apply. To prevent disparate impact and perceived discriminatory practices, employers should be careful not to base decisions on protected characteristics, nor assumptions on high-risk status or caregiver obligations. Employers still need to comply with their obligations under the ADA by engaging in the interactive process and considering reasonable accommodations as appropriate.
Navigating Global Complexities
Regional companies might find the same rules apply across the business, but for multinational corporations with offices around the world, each location could be subject to a different country’s benefits and restrictions, adding yet another degree of difficulty. With different areas of the world experiencing various phases of the global health event, businesses need to follow all applicable guidance and regulations relevant to their locations, presenting a unique challenge to navigate.
Working from home, for example, complicates compliance in the United States as well as for global workforces. Laws and regulations overseas, particularly those that limit working hours, require careful consideration, such as the “right of disconnection” policies in France and Spain that enable employees to disconnect from their employers’ technology after normal hours. Additionally, as some employees look to relocate while working remotely, potentially across borders, employers will need to consider tax and local laws.
To stay compliant, many companies are relying on local employees who are closest to timely updates and leveraging technology to automate the process, a trend that is likely to continue as the legislative and regulatory landscape grows more complex. Following the ever-changing rules across multiple countries can quickly overwhelm even the most dedicated staff.
As offices re-open, another international issue to watch is travel compliance. This ranges from the basics for employees, such as making sure visas are still current, to providing advanced guidance for business trips, including tracking which countries allow reciprocal travel privileges. Many employees will still have to decide whether an in-person meeting or presentation in another country is possible, or whether a video call will have to continue being the norm for now. Companies must carefully consider their stance on such activities and clearly communicate those policies. They must also track varying entry requirements by location as countries continue to evolve their protective measures against potential exposure and outbreak.
Adapting to the Pace of Change
With each change in the rules, businesses will look for ways to streamline compliance-related tasks to alleviate the burden on HR and payroll departments. And to help that streamlining, business leaders must make sure their HR professionals have all the tools they need to gather timely information and remain effective in evolving their policies and communicating changes with employees.
While the nature of compliance will continue to evolve in 2021, businesses must continue to stay abreast of changes and look to subject matter experts who can help them keep pace. A proactive approach in this operating environment requires agility and can mean the difference between simply checking the box or building a stronger foundation for the future.