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Back to Work

Central Florida’s businesses contemplate the future as the coronavirus pandemic changes the workplace.

The way people work has been changed by the pandemic. A number of offices in Central Florida have closed, with employees engaging in telework. Meanwhile, essential employees working in doctor’s offices, child care centers and more are still clocking in but doing so with new protocols: masks, distancing, staggered schedules, etc.

And so as the pandemic rages on and as Florida moves forward in its phased reopening, experts, employees and employers are asking themselves: What is the future of the workplace?

Rethinking Work
Gordon Henry, a lecturer at the University of Central Florida’s college of business and lead faculty member for the Essentials of Human Resource Management course, says several of the employers he’s consulted with are reconsidering how they work entirely.

“Some employers are seeing that they can work equally effectively with a whole variety of different kinds of work arrangements,” he says.

One arrangement that has become a necessary course of action for many offices is telework, which has employees working from home and utilizing technology to stay in touch.

Girl Scouts of Citrus CEO Maryann Barry and her employees have been working remotely since March 17th and she says it’s been a positive experience.

“In some ways, the connection between the teams almost seems to be better than it used to be,” she says.

Henry says companies should revise job descriptions to line up with employees’ new remote working situations. Another long-term issue of the coronavirus pandemic is the toll it is taking on the well-being of employees. Henry says human resources should direct employees to the company’s mental health program, and if an employer doesn’t have a program in place already, now may be the time to adopt one.

Open for Business
While some offices are still closed, others have been operating throughout the pandemic because state and local governments considered their services essential. Such is the case with Laser Foot Surgery Specialist in Dr. Phillips. Dr. Richard M. Cowin, who leads the practice, says to keep patients and staff safe, his employees wear personal protective equipment and patients are asked to wear masks. The practice also has patient areas undergo extensive sanitation between appointments.

At the Florida Retina Institute, the staff are also taking precautions. Practice Relations Director Dottie Davidson says the office has incorporated telemedicine into its routine for some patients. When patients visit the practice, they see a technician who does their workup. Afterward, the patient is connected to his or her doctor through virtual video conferencing using a smart tablet at the office. This helps patients have limited physical interaction.

Child care is also deemed an essential service, especially for those who need help with the kids while they go back to work. Daniel Melo, franchisee for Kiddie Academy, says his early learning centers are following all recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Children and Families, including limiting the number of students and adopting sanitation measures.

Best Practices
Many workplaces are dealing with situations where employees have tested positive for COVID-19. The CDC urges employers to inform workers if they’ve been in contact with an employee who tested positive. Rachel Arnow-Richman, a visiting law professor and the incoming Rosenthal Chair in Labor & Employment law for the University of Florida, says businesses need to be careful when giving out this information.

“Privacy and disability laws limit what information the employer can disclose,” she says. “They cannot disclose the name of someone who tested positive without their permission.”

In accordance with the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, if an employee needs to take time off to quarantine and recover, businesses with fewer than 500 employees must provide paid sick leave.

When it comes to what employers are legally required to do in order to protect employees from contracting the coronavirus at work, the jury is still out. Although undoubtedly ensuing litigation will provide some answers after the fact.

“The catch is we don’t know what constitutes a violation of law when it comes to protecting workers from the virus,” Arnow-Richman says. “When it comes to whistleblowers, some courts are strict and allow claims only when the conduct complained of actually constituted a violation of law. Just because the employee thinks that the employer is not doing enough and reports those concerns doesn’t mean that he or she is protected from retaliation.”

However, workers that collectively advocate for safer working conditions have a different set of legal protections that can shield them from being fired for raising their shared concerns.

New Business Models
The pandemic has caused many organizations to restructure their business models. Orange County Library Services (OCLS) has always offered home delivery and virtual experiences but in recent months, it has ramped up these services.

“We really pivoted very quickly to convert a lot of what we do to virtual,” says Erin Sullivan, public relations administrator for OCLS.

The library system is still in its first phase of reopening and is not offering any in-person classes. However, its lineup of online events and virtual experiences has grown. The library is even conducting its annual summer reading program entirely online. Sullivan says about 1,400 children have been participating in the virtual reading challenges.

“Our numbers have been showing that people are responding really well to this,” Sullivan says. “So, I imagine that even when we do feel like it’s safe someday to have in-person events again, we’re probably going to have more of an increased online presence as well.”

The Girl Scouts of Citrus is also seeing favorable results with its virtual summer camp, which hosts events through Zoom video conferencing and provides supplies for the girls to do activities at home.

Barry says parents and their children have responded well to the program and the nonprofit’s renewal rate is up 4% from last year.

It’s a positive sign for the organization because as COVID-19 cases are once again on the rise in Orange County, it’s unlikely many employers will be going back to business as usual anytime soon.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s August 2020 issue.