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Unpleasant questions behind the spread of the coronavirus

By: | March 20, 2020 • 4 min read
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

The reality that epidemiologists have been explaining for months about the coronavirus is finally sinking in.  The social-distance practices in place now are not going to prevent us from being exposed to the virus.  Even if we do it for a year or more, the virus will still be around.  It is highly contagious, we can be infected and spread it before we have symptoms, and good hygiene will not prevent it as most of us catch it by breathing.

The point of these social-distancing practices is to avoid a sharp spike in the growth rate that would create lots of victims at once and overwhelm the healthcare system.  The 3% or 5% of those who will need hospital care is a big number when the estimates are that a third or more of people could be sick from the virus.

The good news is that not everyone gets sick from being exposed to it, most of those who do get sick will not be very sick, and once we recover, it appears we will not contract it again.

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The process of infection and recovery will, we are told, likely go on for a year or more. Social-isolation practices are also tanking the economy and will bury it if it continues.  That is one of the reasons policy-makers are hinting, or outright saying, they will be lifted by the end of the month even though the virus will not have been defeated.

So we will soon have to go back to work, back to school, back to “normal” life.  It will look like a really bad flu season with many people getting sick and a smaller number, mainly not in the workplace, needing hospital care. How do we manage?

Related COLLECTION: Strategies to manage coronavirus in the workplace

First, we have to get people back to work and those who are healthy to stay at work. People who test positive for the virus and never got sick, or if they did, they have recovered, have won the lottery. They are safe, they can’t transmit the virus, nor can they get it. We need them to come back to work, and we need them to be consumers again. Virtually everyone will eventually be in that situation, but we can’t wait for everyone before we start up again.

The problem is that they won’t know if they are in that situation unless they are tested. It is in their interest and surely that of their employers as well to be tested—as soon as we actually get tests, which is another story. If I was an employer, I wouldn’t wait for my employees to go on their own to their doctors, get the insurance approvals for tests and so forth. I would cut a deal with a testing company and make it available to all my employees for free and beg them to take it. Otherwise, many people who did not get sick, or maybe just thought they had a cold, will not know that they are now safe and can stop worrying.

Second, employees and, indeed, all people need to understand that they cannot drive the risk of getting the virus to zero by staying home past the quarantine period. We need to make sure that the risk of infection in the workplace is as low as possible so that employees understand that it is no riskier to come to work than it is to go shopping or to religious services or other aspects of normal life. Unless they want to give up anything that looks like normal for a long, long time, they might as well come to work.

Yes, it is possible to make employees come to work as long as the risk of being sick there is not unreasonable. But it is not practical to do so, especially with the new Families First legislation that mandates paid sick leave and then FMLA leave for anyone with coronavirus-related problems, such as feeling that you might have symptoms, having a family member with symptoms, a child whose school is closed and so forth. It would be impossible to police all those, and the government has also said not to ask employees to get doctor’s notes for being sick, given the demands on the system.

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An interesting, also disturbing, survey result from Axios reports that employees trust what their employer says about the coronavirus more than they trust what the government says. In this context, employers need to be straight-up with them about the realities of the path of this virus.  They also need to tell them that we really need their help: the business and the organization will go under if we can’t get employees to show up.  We may well be short-staffed during this period, and this could be difficult, but we are going to do our best to take care of you: Here’s the path out of here.

If you have a good, honest relationship with employees, my guess is that they will rally to the need.  If you don’t, this is a powerful incentive to make it better, at least for the next crisis.

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