Dealers must prepare for Covid-19 impact

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At the risk of being called an alarmist, I’m handing out a wake-up call because there’s enough evidence to urge every marine dealer to seriously address the impact COVID-19 may have on its employees and its business. After all, when governments shut borders and impose quarantines, and companies ban employee travel and major events are cancelled, it’s gets real.

Perhaps it was Reagan Haynes’ coverage in yesterday’s Trade Only Today of Shimano’s decision to pull out of three major fishing shows including the Bassmaster Classic. Couple that with the results of the Pulse Report survey, also in yesterday’s Trade Only Today, and it’s now apparent the fast-changing impact of COVID-19 is a call to action i.e. every dealer should be putting together a plan and policies. So, here are some things for dealers to consider in that process:

Employees First: According to authors Jeff Levin-Scherz and Deana Allen, writing in the Harvard Business Review, dealers should put their personnel first. Show appropriate concern while implementing preventative measures. For example, make it clear that if an employee is sick, especially with symptoms like a cough, shortness of breath or fever (above 104.4F), he/she should stay home and see a doctor. The virus is believed spread through respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing — also by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching one’s nose or mouth. The Centers for Disease Control advises a policy of:

  • Leave work if an employee develop these symptoms.
  • Shield coughs and sneezes with a tissue, elbow, or shoulder (not bare hands).
  • Wash hands with soap for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Alcohol-based sanitizing wipes should be distributed throughout the workplace.
  • All frequently touched surfaces — workstations, countertops, doorknobs should be cleaned.
  • Levin-Scherz and Allen also advise avoiding shaking hands, even if awkward at times.
  • (For more, see CDC’s “Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers” here.)

Pay Policies: Dealers also must consider pay policies. It is possible that multiple employees will be out, either because they’re sick or must care for others. Dealers should review their paid-time-off and sick-leave policies now. Policies that give employees confidence they will not be penalized and can afford to take sick leave are important to self-reporting and reducing exposure. Levin-Scherz and Allen’s employer survey found a growing 40 percent of employers now have a clear policy regarding pay if worksites had to be closed down and employees furloughed.

Working Remotely: It may be an option for large corporations but not so much for marine dealers. Still, dealers should examine consider all possibilities, such as videoconferencing, that could be productive in some instances. For instance, FaceTime is a good alternative to risky face-to-face meetings.

Postpone meetings/conferences: There are already reports of cancelled conferences and meetings. TV news yesterday announced recommendations that people not go on cruises. The bottom line is to review any planned meetings or conferences on the schedule, including all in house, and determine the risk vs reward of attending.

Legal Considerations: You can bet when there’s a crisis, lawyers could be involved somewhere. So, it’s notable to consider a dealership’s possible legal obligations surrounding something like the Coronavirus.

Writing about some legal factors to consider, Peter Susser and Tahl Tyson note it’s likely most small businesses don’t have an adequate communicable-illness policy and response plan, and that could expose them to a laundry list of personnel-related legal concerns.

Employees are protected under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. If an employee becomes infected at work, in some circumstances the employer may face penalties. Unprepared employers could be exposed to lawsuits related to workers’ compensation, invasion of privacy discrimination, unfair labor practice, and negligence. However, with careful attention to employee safety and legal preparedness, employers can minimize employees’ risk of infection along with their own legal risks, say Susser and Tyson.

Start by recognizing key sources of public health guidance on any epidemic, and keep up-to-date records of officially recommended and/or mandated actions taken. These sources include The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The World Health Organization, and any local health agency. Official guidance is the foundation for decisions about health and legal-risk mitigation.

Dealerships should be able to show that they have given employees accurate information about ways to prevent the spread of infection and provided the means to act. Educate employees, in advance of any workplace infection, about modes of transmission and symptoms by sharing specific public health guidelines. In addition, implement measures to reduce the risk. Make sure employees have easy access to handwashing facilities, hand sanitizers and that public surfaces such as counters, doorknobs, boarding step handrails, closing rooms are regularly disinfected. Employers may also consider changes to reduce overcrowding, such as facilitating remote work and even physical layout changes. Keep a record of any such actions.

Finally, dealers should analyze their legal obligations to provide employees with leave in the event of sickness or disability and evaluate whether their policies need to be adjusted in the current circumstances. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and state workers’ compensation laws will apply. Also check on exclusions from insurance policies that may can exist. For example, many travel insurance policies specifically exclude pandemics (COVID-19 has not been so labeled, yet.)

Susser and Tyson recommend dealers determine, in advance, under which circumstances they would expand benefits and protections. They should evaluate their level of income protection for employees on leave, perhaps adjusting benefits plans for employees who exceed their sick-day allotment in support of sick employees who must stay home.

Plans are only as good as their execution, of course. But dealers should use the current situation to develop and optimize their plans. Whether or not COVID-19 becomes a full-blown pandemic, these plans and policies could prove invaluable in the future. 

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