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Considerations for reopening your law firm

Special to the News Top Stories

OpenOn March 9, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Florida as a result of COVID-19. Since then, we’ve lived through weeks of quarantine orders, virtual home schooling, remote working, and inexplicable toilet paper shortages. Needless to say, we’ve all made extraordinary adjustments in adapting to the new stay-at-home normal. Now, almost two months later, the state is preparing to reopen again and everyone is wondering how to begin getting back to the “old normal.”

However, if we’re being completely honest, for many organizations there is no going back, not completely anyway. Law firms small and large have been forced to temporarily lay off, furlough, or cut pay,[1] which may lead to more permanent staffing restructuring in the long term. Some have been forced to focus on upgrading technologies, streamlining workflows, and developing new client-centered practices that allow firms the flexibility to work remotely. Others have adapted so well to remote working that they’ll do away with brick-and-mortar office space altogether. Regardless of where your firm falls on the “new normal spectrum,” it’s important that you plan how to resume operations going forward; here are some important things to consider:

Safety

The health and safety of your staff should be the first and foremost consideration. The state may be in the process of reopening, however, the virus is still spreading throughout our communities and is expected to continue doing so for some time, albeit at a slower rate if social distancing and contact tracing are successful. The state of Florida, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have prepared guidelines for businesses and workplaces, some of which include:

  • Before making the call to reopen your firm, review guidance from federal, state, local government, and health agencies. Consider how to incorporate orders, recommendations, and resources into your law firm-specific plans.
    • For more information on all current advisories and COVID-19 in Florida, contact your county health department or visit the Florida DOH COVID-19 webpage. For questions related to COVID-19 in Florida, the Department of Health created a dedicated COVID-19 Call Center which can be reached at 866-779-6121. The Call Center is available 24 hours a day. Inquiries may also be emailed to [email protected].
  • Continue allowing (or encouraging) flexible worksites and remote services for roles that are conducive to teleworking, especially for employees who are just as efficient and productive working from home as in the workplace.
  • For lawyers and staff that cannot telework, establish alternating days or extra shifts that reduce the total number of employees at the firm at a given time while still allowing for employees to complete a full workweek.
  • Develop a plan for employees to return to work in phases.
  • Increase physical space between employees and others at the firm (6 ft), especially if social distancing is recommended by state and local authorities. If this is not possible, require employees and others to wear masks or other face coverings.
  • Limit face-to-face meetings at the firm. Use videoconferencing or teleconferencing when possible. For larger events, follow CDC guidance for events and mass gatherings.
  • Restrict access to common areas.
  • Discontinue nonessential travel. Adhere to CDC guidelines regarding isolation following travel.
  • Develop, implement, and train employees on policies and procedures that address personal hygiene expectations for coughing and sneezing and handwashing. Provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, soap and water, and hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Keep the firm clean and hygienic by routinely cleaning and disinfecting all frequently touched surfaces, such as workstations, counter tops, handrails, and doorknobs. Discourage sharing of tools and equipment, if feasible. To disinfect, use products that meet EPA’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, and are appropriate for the surface.
  • Screen employees and others before entering the premises for symptoms of COVID-19 or influenza like illness.
  • Remind employees to stay home if they are sick, even if they have only mild symptoms of COVID-19 or influenza like illness.

Leave Policies

  • Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of and understand these policies.
  • Maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member or take care of children due to school and childcare closures. Additional flexibilities might include giving advances on future sick leave and allowing employees to donate sick leave to each other.
  • If your firm does not currently offer sick leave to some or all of its employees, you may want to draft non-punitive “emergency sick leave” policies.
  • Don’t require a positive COVID-19 test result or a health-care provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work. Health-care provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner.
  • Review human resources policies to make sure that policies and practices are consistent with public health recommendations and are consistent with existing state and federal workplace laws (for more information on employer responsibilities, visit the Department of Labor’sand the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s websites).
  • Connect employees to employee assistance program (EAP) resources (if available) and community resources as needed. Employees may need additional social, behavioral, and other services, for example, to cope with the death of a loved one.
    • Florida Lawyers Helpline, 1-833-FL1-WELL, is a free and confidential service that connects members with a professional counselor. There’s no cost for calls to the hotline and you may be referred for up to three free telehealth counseling sessions per year to help you develop strategies to overcome life’s challenges, balance priorities, and better handle both personal and professional pressures.

Legal Liability

While Florida Bar staff cannot provide legal advice, we’d be remiss not to include this as a topic for consideration. What will you do if a client or other party claims to have been infected while on law firm premises or due to contact with lawyers or staff? What if an employee is infected while at work? You need to consider potential claims that may arise, especially if you’ve disregarded federal and state guidelines which may have prevented employees or others from getting sick.

Additional Resources:

Articles:

[1] See ABA Journal Layoffs topic articles available at https://www.abajournal.com/topic/layoffs

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