In our previous ERGO update published on 6 May 2020, we endeavored to guide businesses through the standard operating procedure (SoP) that they should incorporate as part of their resumption plan in COVID-19 times. Since the update, several important developments have taken place, both at the Central and the state levels. The Central Government rolled out revised guidelines for Lockdown 4.0 phase with various relaxations aimed at opening up business activities in a calibrated manner. The state governments followed in tow, with some sticking with the relaxations provided by the Central Government and others introducing some restrictions. In this article, we attempt to share important steps that may be taken by employers in view of government mandate and industry-wide developing practices, as they contemplate resuming operations.
The Central Guidelines
Ø Lockdown guidelines: Compared to the previous guidelines, the latest lockdown guidelines dated 17 May 2020 issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India (Central Lockdown Guidelines), set out minimal requirements as far as the SoP for workplaces is concerned. The Central Lockdown Guidelines direct employers to:
a) follow the practice of work from home to the maximum extent possible;
b) ensure staggering of work hours / shifts and lunch breaks;
c) make arrangements for thermal screening and hand sanitisers at entry and exit points as well as common places visited by employees;
d) carry out frequent sanitization of the entire premises;
e) maintain social distancing among the workforce; and
f) ensure that employees wear face cover / masks at public places and at the workplace.
Use of Aarogya Setu app: Previously, the government had made the use of the Arogya Setu app (an app that tracks location data in order to monitor the spread of COVID-19) mandatory for employees, with the head of each organisation tasked with the responsibility of ensuring 100 % compliance by employees. The government has, to a certain extent, relaxed the mandatory use of Aarogya Setu app in the Central Lockdown Guidelines. The guidelines now provide that employers should ensure that the app is installed by all employees having compatible mobile phones, only on a best effort basis.
Ø MoHFW guidelines: On 18 May 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, released Guidelines on Preventive Measures to Contain Spread of COVID-19 in Workplace. These guidelines serve as a good reference material for workplaces as regards the preventive measures they may consider implementing, including the following:
a) directing physical distancing of at least one meter at all times;
b) mandating using face covers / masks;
c) encouraging frequent handwashing for at least 40-60 seconds and use of alcohol-based hand sanitisers for at least 20 seconds;
d) requiring self-monitoring of health condition and self-reporting of any potential / actual illness;
e) mandating respiratory etiquette including safe and proper disposal of used tissues;
f) not permitting any employee who has developed flu-like illness and requesting him / her to seek medical advice from local health authorities (the employee should, thereafter, inform him / her superiors if he / she is diagnosed as a suspected / confirmed case);
g) immediately isolating a symptomatic employee in a separate room and providing mask till the person is removed / seeks medical help;
h) reporting to concerned central/state health authorities in case an employee is found symptomatic;
i) encouraging home isolation for an employee with mild symptoms, subject to compliance with guidelines on home quarantine;
j) carrying out contact tracing and disinfection of the workplace in case of a confirmed case being found at the premises; and
k) closing the building for 48 hours (after disinfection) if there is a larger outbreak at the workplace.
While most states have adopted the Central Lockdown Guidelines, some states have gone ahead and prescribed stricter measures for establishments. An overview of the same has been set out below:
Ø Gurugram (Haryana): Through an order dated 20 May 2020, the District Magistrate, Gurugram, has prescribed regulations for establishments which require:
a) maintaining adequate stock of face covers at the workplace;
b) mandatory use of Aarogya Setu app; and
c) making arrangements for transport facility wherever personal / public transport is not feasible.
Ø Uttar Pradesh: In its lockdown extension order dated 18 May 2020, the government of Uttar Pradesh has laid down the following directives for establishments permitted to operate:
a) maintaining adequate stock of face covers at the workplace;
b) mandatory use of Aarogya Setu app;
c) notifying to the employees a list of nearby clinics wherein treatment of COVID-19 affected patients is done;
d) making arrangements for transport facility wherever personal / public transport is not feasible; and
e) carrying out adequate training in relation to hygiene.
Ø Punjab: In its lockdown extension order dated 17 May 2020, the government of Punjab has incorporated, by reference, the guidelines dated 25 April 2020 that set out the SoP to be followed by industries permitted to function. Some important points which establishments should bear in mind are as follows:
a) devising a comprehensive work-plan that ensures staff strength of a maximum of 50% of the staff/labour working at a particular time;
b) avoiding overlap between shifts and ensuring that there is a gap of approximately an hour between shifts for the purpose of disinfection with 1% sodium hypochlorite solution or any other equivalent commercially available disinfectant;
c) encouraging the use of intercoms / electronic media for communications with and among staff;
d) enabling a system (through intercom announcements, banners or otherwise) through which the practice of handwashing may be instilled among employees; and
e) having an isolation ward / quarantine area for the purpose of isolating any suspected COVID-19 case.
Ø Apart from the above, certain State governments (such as Karnataka and Telangana) had earlier issued SoPs / advisories specifically vis-à-vis IT / ITES establishments in the state. While these SoPs / advisories were issued much prior to the Central Lockdown Guidelines, employers in the IT / ITES sector should consider implementing measures set out in these documents in view of the comprehensive manner in which they lay down the required preventive measures. For instance, in Karnataka, the advisory also sets out various measures that are to be adopted if an employee is found COVID-19 positive at the workplace. Further, it also advises employers to have in place / appoint a response team and incident manager / nodal officer to ensure quick action in case there is any suspected case or exposure, employees to sign a self-declaration form, encourages employers to conduct virtual meetings, etc.
Ø In Tamil Nadu as well, the government had on 11 May 2020 released certain guidelines for resuming manufacturing activities after the lockdown. These include trying not to achieve high production targets in the first week, inspecting all equipment per the safety protocols, ensuring 24-hour sanitization of the factory premises, isolating and sanitizing finished goods, ensuring delivery of goods in shifts, providing face protection shields along with masks and PPEs, creating physical barriers to ensure physical distance within the work floor and dining facilities, etc. While these guidelines were also issued under the previous government orders, employers in the manufacturing sector should consider implementing the same as a measure of good practice.
The COVID-19 outbreak has unleashed a new normal that would witness a new style of working. Based on our discussions with various employers, we understand that the following are some of the developing industry practices (short-term and long-term) that they are considering:
Ø identifying the personnel as ‘essential’, ‘intermittently required’ and ‘non-essential’ and devising the manner in which their services would be availed for the next few months;
Ø designating certain personnel to handle grievances / apprehensions of personnel;
Ø developing an SoS system wherein any potential / confirmed case may be immediately reported and isolated;
Ø undertaking human resource initiatives such as health bulletins / newsletters (to share important health related information) for employees;
Ø developing a more systematic use of technology to conduct large meetings in order to practice social distancing;
Ø avoiding a biometric system of recording attendance;
Ø revision of leave policy to accommodate any leaves that may have to be taken by an employee tested positive;
Ø avoiding catering services for staff for a few months and encouraging the staff to bring their own food;
Ø regularly disinfecting any transport vehicle used for conveyance;
Ø communicating with manpower service providers engaged by the establishment to ensure that similar preventive measures are adopted by them while deploying their workforce at the principal employer’s premises;
Ø giving due attention to air-conditioning and ventilation systems which are to be regularly cleaned;
Ø installing CCTV cameras, where feasible, at conspicuous places in the premises to effectively monitor social distancing norms and trace contacts of an infected person at the workplace;
Ø ensuring that the group medical insurance policy, if any, obtained by the employer covers hospitalization expenses that would cover COVID-19 related costs as well; and
Ø notifying the preventive measures to be observed by staff to contain the outbreak at workplace, communicating that non-compliance of the measures would entail appropriate action.
The above-mentioned checklist is only a starting point. A calibrated business resumption and continuity plan by establishments is the need of the hour. As part of the plan, a dedicated task force consisting of personnel across organizational levels should be set up who would ensure effective and continuous implementation of such a plan.
It should also be borne in mind that some employees may have a reasonable apprehension of reporting back to work given the risk of contagion and that the number of COVID-19 cases in the country continues to rise at an exponential rate. Therefore, an empathetic approach should be adopted and a constant and open dialogue with the workforce should be encouraged to allay any fears that relate to resuming duties at the workplace.
The above update has been prepared by members of the Employment Labour and Benefits practice group viz. Anshul Prakash (Partner), Vinay Joy (Partner), Srishti Ramkrishnan (Associate), and Deeksha Malik (Associate).
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