Street Talk: How to release employees

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Thousands of people in West Michigan lost their jobs last week. Thousands more might this week. It’s the new world order, at least for the time being.

But like with everything else in life, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. For West Michigan employers, here are some tips for completing this onerous task the right way.

The Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity last week provided guidance to Michigan employers on how to avoid potential layoffs related to COVID-19.

“We know that many families and businesses are and will experience economic pain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said LEO Director Jeff Donofrio. “Through Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer’s executive action and existing state programs, there are resources for employers affected by COVID-19. We are also strongly urging job providers facing work shortages to place their employees on temporary leave as opposed to termination, so that they may remain eligible for potential federal assistance.”

Donofrio said if employers are financially distressed but hope to continue operations by cutting back hours, they are encouraged to use the Unemployment Insurance Agency’s Work Share program that allows employers to maintain employment levels and business operations during declines in regular business activity rather than laying off workers. More information about the program can be found at www.michigan.gov/workshare.

Due to the uncertainty regarding potential congressional action regarding whether and how furloughed workers will be able to access federal paid sick, family and medical leave resources, he said “employers are strongly urged to place employees on temporary leave and advise the worker that they expect to have work available within 120 days as opposed to termination.” There is no additional cost to employers, employees remain eligible for UI benefits through the state and employees may remain eligible for potential federal assistance.

Here are some tips LEO offers for employers placing employees on temporary unpaid leave:

Do not terminate the employee. Specify a temporary/indefinite leave with return to work expected that is within 120 days.

Do not create a contractual obligation to bring the employee back to work. Let the employee know that the situation is fluid and subject to change.

Provide the employee with a formal Unemployment Compensation Notice. Employers will need to provide their Employer Account Number and Federal Identification Number.

Communicate with the employee about their rights. Under Whitmer’s recent Executive Order, workers who are placed on leave, or are unable to work because they are sick, quarantined, immunocompromised, or have an unanticipated family care responsibility, are eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

Ensure employees are provided information on how to obtain unemployment insurance benefits. A factsheet can be found here.

Get each employee’s up-to-date contact information and let them know if you will be putting updated information on the company’s website or intranet. Also, keep a single or limited number of individuals who will field questions and communicate that information to employees. Then keep tallies of all questions and answers and share that information with employees periodically.

Donofrio said the state is monitoring issues related to continued medical insurance coverage and will update accordingly.

Also of interest is that under the governor’s order, an employer or employing unit must not be charged for unemployment benefits if their employees become unemployed because of an executive order requiring them to close or limit operations.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s call center can support businesses looking for assistance through other available state programs. For more information, visit the MEDC’s website: www.michiganbusiness.org or call (888) 522-0103. The Michigan Small Business Development Center also can provide resources for small businesses impacted by COVID-19.

Whitmer said she also is seeking additional solutions for small businesses impacted by COVID-19. Earlier this month, Congress passed legislation that makes $1 billion available to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide low-interest loans to small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and nonprofits that have suffered substantial economic losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuned in

Being an internet shut-in has never been easier. Comcast recently announced additional steps to help ensure people stay connected to the internet as more schools suspend classes and companies encourage employees to work from home to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Comcast plans to implement the following new policies and initiatives for the next 60 days:

  • Xfinity WiFi free for everyone: Xfinity WiFi hotspots across the country will be available to anyone who needs them for free — including non-Xfinity internet subscribers.
  • Pausing data plans: With so many people working and educating from home, customers can access the internet without thinking about data plans. Xfinity is pausing its data plans for 60 days to give all customers unlimited data for no additional charge.
  • No disconnects or late fees: Xfinity care teams will be available to offer flexible payment options and can help find solutions for customers who can’t pay their bills during this period.
  • Internet Essentials free to new customers: New customers will receive 60 days of complimentary Internet Essentials service, which is normally available to all qualified low-income households for $9.95/month. For all new and existing Internet Essentials customers, the speed of the program’s internet service was increased to 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
  • News, information and educational content on X1 and Flex: For those with school-age students at home, Xfinity has created new educational collections for all grade levels in partnership with Common Sense Media.
  • 24×7 network monitoring: Xfinity is monitoring network usage and watching the load on the network both nationally and locally.

Shop responsibly

National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay and Retail Industry Leaders Association President Brian Dodge are advising consumers to shop responsibly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Declaring coronavirus (COVID-19) a national emergency in the United States was a critical step toward ensuring that our communities, our friends and our families will have the resources necessary to protect their safety and security and provide a level of clarity during an uncertain time.

“Retailers — particularly grocery providers — are working with manufacturers, suppliers and government agencies to make certain essential products and services remain readily available to customers. Retail supply chains remain strong and retail employees are working around the clock to meet consumer demand.

“If you don’t need an item in the next two weeks, leave it for someone who does. Hoarding and stockpiling creates unnecessary gaps between the time that someone who truly needs a product can find it back on retailers’ shelves. This is particularly important for our most vulnerable neighbors — the elderly and those who are struggling with other health issues.

“Hoarding products only contributes to the fear surrounding the virus, and any hoarder acting with malicious intent to drive up prices on a secondary market should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

“We know this is a challenging time for everyone. But by partnering against fear and doubt, shopping responsibly and following important instructions on how we can help stop the spread of this virus, we will successfully face this challenge. Together.”

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