This MTD exclusive was written by Bill Ford, president of SESCO Management, a full-service human resources and employee relations consulting firm that has clients in the automotive aftermarket.

In a matter of a couple of weeks – due to the COVID-19 crisis – independent tire dealers have had to become not only experts in operating a successful business but also experts in addressing matters like the CARES Act, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and medical/health guidance, Small Business Administration loan opportunities, unemployment regulations and related staffing matters.

"Owning and running a business in light of the current crisis has become extremely complex on a number of levels," says Ford.  -

"Owning and running a business in light of the current crisis has become extremely complex on a number of levels," says Ford.

 

The learning curve also has included the potential liability associated with infections of customers and/or employees and subsequent lawsuits that could occur.

Owning and running a business in light of the current crisis has become extremely complex on a number of levels. To compound matters, the information and guidance provided by our federal government, states and even local authorities has been most difficult to monitor and adhere to as guidance is ever-changing. The following are answers to commonly asked, COVID-19-related HR questions, as well recommendations to help address complex workplace challenges:

Question: Can an employee request to take emergency paid sick leave because they are “scared” to come to work?

Answer: No. As an essential business, you can require employees to come to work. If an employee refuses, then it becomes a voluntary resignation as work was made available and the employee needs to know that they technically would not be eligible for unemployment.

Question: If an employee is infected by COVID-19, are they covered by workers’ compensation?

Answer: Workers’ compensation claims and procedures are based on state laws and carrier-specific requirements. Generally, state workers’ compensation laws require an employee to prove that he or she contracted the illness in the course and scope of employment and that the illness is caused by hazard recognized a peculiar to the employment relationship.

Question: Can an employee who has been furloughed or their hours of work reduced be eligible for unemployment?

Answer: Yes, eligibility for unemployment benefits is based on state laws and agency-specific requirements. While working 15 hours or less generally results in potential eligibility, the benefit determination will be primarily based on the employee’s previous compensation and related hours worked.

Question: May an employee collect unemployment benefits for time in which they receive the emergency paid sick leave or paid family leave?

Answer: No. Employees cannot “double up” on unemployment and paid sick or childcare leave.

Question: I have applied for the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) but have also furloughed/laid off/cut hours back. What should we do?

Answer: Under the PPP, the loan is 100% forgivable if during the eight weeks of spending the “loan,” your FTE’s average the same as in your look-back period and you haven’t reduced an employee’s compensation by more than 25%. So, it is important that you hire back to your “average” during the eight weeks of spending.

Question: What if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

Answer: As directed by their healthcare provider, the employee will be required to self-quarantine for the appropriate number of days, typically 14. You, as the employer, should also proactively communicate with staff, monitor their health/symptoms, clean the facility (as should be ongoing) and, most importantly, contact your local health department.

Question: How can I control employees from abusing emergency paid sick leave?

Answer: The paid sick leave must be certified by a professional healthcare provider. An employee who simply states that he or she doesn’t feel well and wants to go home and receive the 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave would not qualify if that individual cannot produce medical certification that it is COVID-19- related.

Question: How can we control abuse of employees taking advantage of the childcare provisions?

Answer: This is extremely difficult. In fact, the Department of Labor has allowed two spouses to be at home to take care of children. This portion of FFCRA was one that was not well thought-out as the Department of Labor does not require certification. You can push back as an employer and request certification, but in the end, if the employee cannot provide certification, they will still be eligible for up to 12 weeks at two-thirds of their salary.

Over-communication

When there is a void of communication from owners and leadership, employees will naturally fill this void with rumors, false information and other inappropriate communications that could negatively affect the business and your customers. As such, it is critical, even on a daily basis, that you communicate effectively with your employees.

You should include those employees who are on furlough, as well, via new technology, such as Zoom, or via conference calling. As the news and so called “facts” change daily, there are opportunities to communicate with your employees. Topics may include:

Essentials of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Employees must know and understand their rights, but they also need to understand the basics so that they don’t abuse or misuse the emergency paid sick and child care provisions.

Marketing, best practices and your company’s vision. Reassure your employees that you are on top of the business and have a strategy prepared to weather the current storm, as well as to be prepared when the economy reopens.

COVID-19 facts and statistics. As the news media isn’t always factual or communicates positive news, it is important that owners and leaders of the organization provide this information to keep their employees as calm as possible.

Your health and safety plans. This includes updates on the ongoing cleaning and maintenance of your facilities, as directed by the CDC.

Question-and-answer periods. Employees need human connection. Frequent communication offers a unique opportunity for employee assurance as organizations help their employees through these unprecedented times. They need this give-and-take, conversation times.

Finally, don’t be afraid to communicate. If you don’t know an answer, there are sources available to get your questions answered. Your management credibility greatly increases when you engage your staff in communication, even if sessions last five to 10 minutes.

 HR and employment strategies

As the pandemic affects organizations, employees are increasingly becoming anxious, frustrated and fatigued. If left unattended, these feelings will impact employees’ productivity and engagement, leading to poor work quality, a disconnected workforce and ultimately can impact your ability to succeed during these tough times.

Please consider the following HR and employment strategies as you manage your operations during this pandemic and maybe even more importantly, in preparing for the reopening of your state or region.

Maintaining employee morale. In addition to proactive communication, you need to maintain  employees’ morale during these very stressful times. It is critical that you make employees feel appreciated and important. Simple techniques like expressing thanks, asking them how their family is doing, and asking for their input and suggestions are all daily leadership musts.

Further, personal notes or letters to employees and their families, in their homes, expressing thanks, as well as increased flexibility in work schedules and other practices, will help maintain employees’ morale, which is at the core of whether or not an organization is highly productive and successful.

Challenge compensation systems. Labor costs are an employer’s largest, single controllable cost. Given the mass layoffs, furloughs and reductions in staffing hours that have happened in response to COVID-19, employers fully understand that labor costs are immediately controllable.

Fixed expenses such as utilities, insurance, rent are very difficult to control, unless a business simply shuts down. As such, now is the time to challenge your compensation practices to include staffing numbers, compensation philosophies, hours of work, compensation amounts and fringe benefits. As you know, during this period and even more importantly, when things start to turn around, the economy is going to be tight. As such, running lean and highly productive will be a way of life, moving forward.

As utilized in most automotive service organizations, positions need to be highly incentivized. Flat rate, sales commissions and other incentives and bonuses should be highly leveraged. Clearly articulate position expectations and performance outcomes, preferably in writing.

Employment practices and systems. As with compensation, now is the time to address items such as employee handbooks, job descriptions and other employment tools and systems. These undergird your organization’s largest single controllable cost and as such, need to be up-to-date, compliant and effective so that you will have the tools to manage employees and their day-to-day performance.

Human resource management and addressing these simple strategies are, frankly, simple but not commonly employed. Based upon our consulting to the automotive service profession over the past 75 years, many small- to mid-size employers do not have effective employment strategies and systems, as noted, and many owners and managers avoid holding employees accountable.

There is a very simple reason for this: many owners and managers did not get into the tire and automotive service business to manage staff. But you – and they -- are in the people business first and foremost. And this is where systems must be developed to help you run the “people management” side of your company.

Bill Ford and SESCO can be reached at bill@sescomgt.com.

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