Small business owners operating in the pandemic must create a plan to protect employees and customers in order to limit their own liability when faced with workplace transmission of the novel coronavirus, experts said during a webinar hosted by the Bucknell Small Business Development Center.
Michael Wademan, a pandemic consultant, and Larry Zale, a patent attorney and former biomedical engineering researcher, presented A Practical Guide to (Re)Opening Your Business. The free webinar open to the public, one of many hosted by Bucknell SBDC, focused on efficient implementation of safeguards and minimizing liability.
Inaction begets negligence, Zale said, which can open small business owners to civil court fines, lawsuits and potentially large punitive damages.
“You can really get nailed with those punitive damages and they’re of a nature to punish you,” said Zale, who operates Zale Intellectual Property Law in Scott Township, Lackawanna County.
Reasonable action prevents negligence, he said. As an example, Zale said a small business owner may not be able to afford an expensive air purification system. However, they’re likely able to afford filters for fans or units with preinstalled filters.
“If you act reasonably then you’re not negligent,” Zale said.
Zale advised small business owners to use health safety and mitigation recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in creating an infectious disease and response plan.
Wademan, owner of Cove Technology Inc. of Clarks Summit, cited the CDC’s three basic directives for businesses: reduce transmission among employees, maintain healthy business operations, maintain a healthy work environment.
Pennsylvania is currently under a universal mask order that, with limited health exemptions, requires employees and customers to wear masks inside businesses. Wademan acknowledged this can be difficult for employees, particularly in the retail sector.
Social distancing indoors is also a challenge, Wademan said, but is something small business owners must adhere to. He suggested altering workspaces and retail areas to comply with the 6-foot minimum recommended by health officials. Another recommendation, he said, is for small business owners to maintain an inventory of alcohol-based cleaning supplies, hand soap and sanitizer.
“It’s the same stuff over and over again but the redundancy is important,” Wademan said when advising about masks, social distance and hand hygiene.
When developing an infectious disease and response plan, employers should include directives on employees' self-reporting symptoms, screening symptoms at the workplace, self-isolation standards, remote work from home including the use of tools for production, project management and communication.
“Maybe work-from-home staff is cold calling potential clients. Maybe they’re updating our website. They’re still able to do their job and are able to work from home,” Wademan said.
Employers take on greater liability when dispatching workers to visit areas with COVID-19 hotspots, Wademan said. That liability shifts to employees who choose to visit these areas on their own time, meaning employers won’t be on the hook to pay for their self-quarantine in such cases, he said.
“If they just take the day off and go to visit family, then you don’t have to pay them. They’re choosing to go on their own,” Wademan said.
Wademan and Zale offer consulting services on safely reopening businesses in the pandemic. Find their respective businesses online for more information. Visit Bucknell SBDC’s page within www.bucknell.edu for information about coronavirus precautions, free webinars and member services.