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Uncertainty lingers over worker safety and fears of returning to the workplace in the coronavirus pandemic

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Will workers return to work is as much of a question as when, with employers facing real challenges with legal ramifications prompted by a dizzying array of guidelines imposed since the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’ve coached many people through this in the last week. The guidance really falls on government,” said Scott Lewis of Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller & Moskowitz in Santa Rosa. “For companies with 50 or more employees, you’re going to see a lot of interesting things.”

Along with other North Bay lawyers, the attorney contends many businesses may see challenges as workers grapple with fear at the prospect of working in an office as COVID-19 rages on.

“People are scared to death,” he said.

This month, the Employment Development Department issued new guidelines which allow concerns over safety in filing a claim for unemployment.

“The fear we’ll hear is, ‘I don’t want to put family members at risk,’” said Jennifer Douglas of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty in Napa. “We’re telling our clients to take this very seriously. My best advice is, if I could stand in front of the public and explain what I did (as an employer) and feel good about what I did, then you did the right thing.”

Douglas makes the case of just how much of a whirlwind the pandemic has brought about.

“It’s amazing it’s been almost two months. Things change every week, and we get more guidance. Part of the problem for (human resources) directors is that every government agency has guidance. We’re trying to stay ahead of the guidance.”

Those guidelines come from agencies ranging from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the California departments of Health, Fair Employment and Housing as well as Industrial Relations and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Stand-offs that draw lines in the sand between a reluctant employee and eager-to-resume-operations employer may occur.

North Bay attorneys said companies’ requests for staffers to return will be better received with “work-around” options that range from a permanent remote working schedule to staggered shifts in the office.

And while in the office, employees will expect employers to adopt measures that maintain separate workstations and erect barriers.

“Or, they’ll essentially quit,” he said. “We’ll see a tidal wave of lawsuits and claims.”

Since March 15, Cal OSHA reports eight, four and 11 health and safety complaints filed in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties, respectively.

“As COVID-19 is now widespread in the community, employers must take steps to update their safety procedures to prevent infection,” Cal OSHA spokeswoman Paola Laverde told the Business Journal, adding workers who feel sick should at least be encouraged to stay home. Employers are urged to provide training on the signs of coronavirus symptoms.

One biotech company has elevated its anti-coronavirus measures to include more than the layout of the plant and office space to protect the health and safety of its employees.

BioMarin in Novato has implemented a “close-contact log” to chronicle their employees’ interactions as well as the best use of personal protective equipment.

“These measures are consistent with or exceed local government requirements,” spokeswoman Debra Charlesworth said.

It’s often up to law firms to inform companies of their liabilities and possible legal issues. From the outset, it seems most are listening.

“I think companies are afraid of getting sued,” said Cheryl Loof of Farella Braun + Martel. “It’s about more than just being in the office. How will they get there, and can you even get to work?”

Few commuters might have the stomach to stand next to someone, much less touch surfaces where 50 other people have made contact.

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