COVID-19 Workplace Re-Entry Guide

Companies across America have been forced to furlough employees due to the COVID-19 crisis. As we begin to shift into the cautious lifting of stay at home mandates and federal restrictions, many companies will begin bringing employees back to work. This is great news, but it’s important to follow proper procedure, just as you did when confirming your furlough in writing to individual employees. 

In a pre-COVID-19 marketplace, employers could take 60-90 days prior to a furlough to build and develop a communication and business strategy. Because of the rapid changes during this global pandemic, we don’t have the luxury of time. This means that our post-decision actions and planning are critical to make sure that employee re-entry happens as smoothly as possible now we are working and living in a post-COVID-19 world. 

In our comprehensive Furlough Guide, I stressed the importance of communicating with employees transparently and frequently for just this reason. Maintaining communication makes a return to work following a furlough much more effective and lessens the risk of losing employees to other companies during your furlough. And just as you confirmed your employee furlough with an official letter, you must also send a furlough recall letter to all returning employees. Ongoing communication with our employees remains critical, whether they are remote workers now, working from the office, or are returning to the office coming back from furlough or reduced hours. 


Planning for Workplace Re-EntryAfter COVID-19 and Shelter in Place Orders Are Lifted 


Depending on current social distancing rules and state and city guidelines, how we re-enter the workplace and open up our offices will vary. It’s also important to consider planning, or how your phased reopening is expected to operate, and what will happen if state or city guidelines change based on an increased rate of new cases of COVID. We must be prepared in phase two to step back to phase one if necessary, which is why we recommend a phased approach to employee recalls.

It’s imperative to have regular communication with your managers and team leaders. Your managers are your front lines of defense and we need to ensure that their communication is aligned with HR and the larger organization. Communication should be focused on plans for rehiring furloughed employees and the resources and support they need as they transition back into the workplace. 

Part of your re-entry or re-opening strategy should include “what if” scenarios: What to do if an employee who has recently returned to work is diagnosed with COVID. What to do if new cases in your area suddenly increase, leading to another stay at home mandate. What to do if you extend an employment offer to a furloughed employee and they’re hesitant about returning to work. What to do if you extend an employment offer and the furloughed employee is making more money on unemployment than they would by returning to work?

Maintaining such information, especially at enterprise level, is a difficult task. In such critical times, you cannot afford to be misinformed on your employees’ health status. To solve this problem, engineers at Apple and Mappedin have collaborated to develop a contact tracing solution which allows employers to analyze temporal and spatial data of the employees to spot any potential cases.

Financial assistance for unemployment benefits under the CARES Act (allowing for an additional $600 a week on top of state unemployment benefits) ends on June 30, so employees in the latter situation may need advice on how long your offer stands. If this is a large number of employees, your company might have to consider raising hourly wages. All of this should be mapped out in your planning.


Bringing Furloughed Employees Back to Work


The employees that will be returning to your workplace will have a lot of questions, including when to report income that stops unemployment checks and what measures your company will have in place that ensures employee safety. They will also want to know if and how their benefits might be affected (such as PTO), expected date of return, and any changed terms of employment, 

Think of the recall letter as a new employment offer letter that supersedes previous terms of employment. It should include all information that you would provide in an offer letter to new employees, including:

– Title or position

– Direct supervisor

– Job description and responsibilities

– Salary or hourly rate

– Expected work hours (which may fluctuate due to phased re-entry and that should be included)

– Exempt or non-exempt status

The letter should also include if any terms of employment have changed, such as how PTO is accumulated, how much PTO can roll over (or if PTO is restricted), new safety procedures employees are required to follow (wearing of masks), and expected timeline for return.

This is also where you want to communicate what changes your company has put in place to keep the workplace safe, including special cleaning measures, social distancing, safety equipment provided (masks, hand sanitizer). The letter should also include the requirements your company has put into place for employees working with the public (protocols that may include temperature readings at the start of a shift), staggered shifts, reduced customer capacity and any industry specific guidelines. You don’t want an anxious employee to return to work on day one to be met by any surprises.

As for the employees that will not be returning to your workplace, they might need a significant change in their terms and conditions of employment – for example, a place of employment different from that specified in their contract – you will need to record the amendment to their contract. If employees are asked to work from home on a self-employed basis, you will not be able to rely on using them on a full-time basis (as their income should come from a variety of sources in that case). The employment contracts will also differ, check out types of contract templates to sign with remote workers.

Areas of Liability for Re-Entry 


In an ideal world, your company would extend employment offers to all furloughed employees. However, many companies will not be at full operations upon reopening, either because of government mandates or due to expected lower demand for services. In these circumstances, employers will not be able to rehire or bring back from a furlough all of their former employees. Employers must be cautious in determining who to bring back to the workplace to mitigate risk of potential discrimination claims based on the decision not to bring back certain employees.


Your company will need to have a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for choosing which employees to return to work. These reasons could be based on seniority, operational needs or past performance. You should take care to document your decision-making process before extending offers to the employees you’ve selected to invite to return to work. By working now to document the factors used to determine who will be rehired, your company can ensure compliance against liability from claims asserting that your selection process was discriminatory.

It’s also important that the selection process is not based on an employee’s potential risk of contracting COVID. For example, if your company has concerns about inviting back older or pregnant employees into the workforce because they may be at higher risk, the EEOC has stated in recent guidance that employers cannot unilaterally decide not to hire individuals who are over 65 or pregnant because of COVID-19 risks without violating federal discrimination laws. Employers can discuss concerns with those individuals and see if they wish to delay a return to work or if telecommuting would be an option, but the decision not to rehire because of age or pregnancy cannot be made by the employer.

Finally, you’ll want to ensure that you are following OSHA guidelines for control and prevention as you bring employees back to work. There are general guidelines and industry-specific guidelines your company must follow — especially around safe work practices and equipment used to prevent exposure. Supplying protective equipment such as masks is not sufficient; employees must also be trained on protocols and how to use protective equipment. According to OSHA:

Employers should adapt infection control strategies based on a thorough hazard assessment, using appropriate combinations of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent worker exposures. Some OSHA standards that apply to preventing occupational exposure to COVID-19 also require employers to train workers on elements of infection prevention, including PPE.

OSHA has a dedicated site for employers who must train workers on how to use PPE, including what type is necessary and how to properly wear, adjust, and safely put it on and take it off.


Circling Back to Workplace Communication


Another note about communication: As your employees return to work, the communication frequency and channels you adopted before or during a furlough should continue, if not escalate. While employees self-quarantined at home needed information to keep them engaged until your company could end the furlough, the workers returning to your company are going to need constant reassurance and information on how your company is monitoring local coronavirus statistics, successfully using safety measures, and what to do in the instance of exposure. Again, you cannot over communicate during this time. A quiet HR department is going to make for a nervous and unproductive workforce. Plan on sending (at least) daily updates to all employees on any decisions, status changes, and other information that serves to reassure these employees.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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