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Navigating your practice reopening in the post­–COVID-19 era

June 1, 2020
You are chomping at the bit to get back to work, but holy moly! The decisions, challenges, and strategic thinking involved are a delicate balancing act.

You’ve been shut down. You’ve furloughed, laid off, or terminated employees. You are chomping at the bit to get back to work, but holy moly! The decisions, challenges, and strategic thinking involved are a delicate balancing act.

Your reopening, if it hasn’t happened already, is either going to be phased or not phased. Either way necessitates coordination between your state/local mandates, team members, patients, and suppliers. It doesn’t do you any good to open the office and not have the required personal protective equipment (PPE), employees to work, or patients to see.

Hopefully by now, in anticipation of reopening, you’ve taken advantage of your downtime to call, reschedule, or schedule patients to ensure there is dentistry to be done when you’re ready. Additionally, we hope you’ve supported and communicated with your employees throughout the closure and layoffs to ensure you’ve got a mobilized team when you reopen.

As we settle in to the post-COVID era’s new normal, we want to explore some of the key human resource considerations to keep in mind as you move forward.

Regulatory compliance issues 

The First Families Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) became effective April 1. The bad news is that it doesn’t expire until December 31, 2020, and odds are COVID-19 outbreaks will crop up this fall. This will again cause school and day-care closures and prompt FFCRA leave requests. Also, there are posting, policy, and forms requirements to ensure compliance.

The good news is that it expires December 31, 2020, there are very specific and limited qualifications for paid leave, and you receive a 100% reimbursement; thus, it costs you nothing.

Reemployment 

When reemploying, the question is, what type of “ending of employment” did you have? In most cases, if you furloughed or temporarily laid off employees, then the employment relationship did not formally end. Therefore, reemploying is mostly a matter of picking up where you left off with compensation and benefits. 

If, on the other hand, the ending was a permanent layoff or termination and now you’ve decided to offer employment, then reemploying is like a new hire. Even as a new-hire-type situation, some state laws require reinstatement of compensation and benefits if reemployment takes place within a certain period of time. This is most commonly part of sick leave or paid time off (PTO) laws. Therefore, it is important to understand the laws that are applicable to you and the benefits you offer. 

An ending that was a permanent layoff or termination may also necessitate a complete redo of some or all of the normal new-hire paperwork that is required. 

Due to economic conditions, you may have to restructure certain parts of your practice in this new normal. This may mean not reemploying as many staff as you had before, changing people’s job duties, reducing hours or pay, and so on—anything that will allow you to keep your business functioning. 

Do you have to bring everyone back? No. Can you change people’s job duties? Yes. Can you reduce their pay? Yes. You can always make adjustments to these things. The bigger question is, can you make these changes and not suffer any consequences? 

COVID-19 will not provide you with a “get out of jail free card” on any of the normal discrimination, retaliation, and wage and hour concerns that existed before the pandemic. Therefore, you must make smart, business-related, objective, careful decisions at all times. You need to have documentation supporting your decisions. You can’t make decisions that adversely impact protected classes. Everything you do or don’t do can subject you to claims and allegations, so be sure you consult with appropriate professionals when necessary. The last thing you want or need right now is a labor complaint or discrimination lawsuit. 

Staffing levels

Regardless of how and when you reopen, staffing levels should correspond to the amount of business you have to ensure expenses stay in line with revenue. This may mean that some former employees come back and others don’t, or some come back now and some later. 

Don’t get too caught up in the paycheck protection program (PPP) loan forgiveness aspect and make bad staffing decisions that can haunt you in the future. If it works out to have staffing levels and wages on June 30, 2020, up to at least 75% of what they were on February 15, 2020, then yay! If not, so be it.

What if certain individuals don’t want to come back? Regardless of the reason (fear, safety, retiring, changing careers), not returning to the office is certainly an employee’s prerogative and is a reality many employers will face while working through the impact and ramifications of COVID-19. 

It might be possible to identify something that will change the person’s mind (wearing masks, providing hand sanitizer, changing job duties), and if not, you’ll have to let the person go and move on. 

Before you jump into doing something such as a big raise, extra bonus, or better benefits to keep a special employee on board, keep in mind that better treatment of one person will mean that you must treat others the same or you can open yourself up to the same lines of discrimination and retaliation issues as noted above. 

Preparing for the next COVID-19 wave (or another pandemic) 

Many employers were not prepared to manage this crisis from the get-go, and that lack of preparedness and planning caused confusion, fear, and financial anxiety. If this has taught us anything, it’s that a plan of action is priceless, and you can easily use this experience to build that plan going forward.

Everyone should take this moment to develop a pandemic plan. Look back on the last three to four months and ask yourself:

  • What was asked of me?
  • What did I not know?
  • Where was I caught by surprise?
  • What was I missing?
  • What questions did my employees ask?
  • Where was I most perplexed?
  • How could I have communicated better?
  • What should my employees know before this happens again?
  • Most importantly, what do I need to do to be better prepared to confidently address and handle the next one?

Hopefully asking these questions will lead to a comprehensive plan that covers pertinent topics and issues. Then let your employees see it and ask questions as they feel the need. The plan won’t work if your employees are not properly informed. Be sure new employees receive the same information.

Building your winning team of the future 

As you look toward the future, this is a great time to build a winning team. Look at this as an opportune time to:

  • Clarify your practice vision
  • Get the right people on the bus
  • Get the right people in the right seats on the bus
  • Communicate more effectively with your team
  • Be a better coach and mentor
  • Be a better problem solver

In so doing, take Lee Iacocca’s formula to heart. He said, “Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate them, and reward them. If you do all these things effectively, you can’t miss.”1

Start with good people: Hire first and foremost for attitude and fit, which can’t be taught, and secondarily for experience and skills, which can be taught. Once you’re clear on what you are looking for, formalize an onboarding process to ensure that your new employees get the training and support throughout the first year of employment that will ensure long-term success.

Lay out the rules: Preempt and prevent problems with an up-to-date, comprehensive policy manual or employee handbook, complete with FFCRA policies. Everyone knows the rules, everyone knows the expectations, everyone has the answers, and everyone is treated equitably and fairly. Have up-to-date job descriptions for each position that delineate specific duties, expectations, and responsibilities in support of improved performance and accountability.

Communicate with your employees: Provide recognition, appreciation, and productive feedback, both positive and negative (when necessary), on an ongoing and routine basis.

Motivate them: Manage performance by setting mutually established individual goals. When goals are mutually established there is investment and motivation to achieve them, which is a win-win for everyone.

Reward them: It is important to pay well. It is important to provide good benefits. It is even more important to have a bonus plan in place that rewards growth and creates stakeholders rather than employees.

Do all those things effectively, and you can’t miss: In so many ways, we are entering a strange new world. Things that were common yesterday are different today. Remember when a handshake was normal? This is a good time to think outside the box, be creative, change the paradigm, shift your thought processes, and maybe be a little more flexible. You can have a good, solid team again. You can be a better leader. You can be better prepared for next time. We all just need to do the work and put it all into action.

Reference

1. Brainy Quote. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/lee_iacocca_400645

TIM TWIGG is the president of Bent Ericksen & Associates and REBECCA BOARTFIELD is an HR compliance consultant. For more than 30 years, the company has been a leading authority on human resources and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with ever-changing and complex labor laws. To receive a complimentary copy of the company’s quarterly newsletter or to learn more, call (800) 679-2760 or visit 

About the Author

Rebecca Boartfield and Tim Twigg

Rebecca Boartfield is HR compliance consultant and Tim Twigg is president of Bent Ericksen & Associates. For more than 30 years, the company has been a leading authority in human resources and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with ever-changing and complex labor laws. To receive a complimentary copy of the company’s quarterly newsletter or to learn more, call (800) 679-2760 or visit bentericksen.com.

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