Facing the COVID Resurgence: Advice for Employers

COVID fatigue is real. After months of turmoil and countless new demands, many of us had begun to experience a version of normal life again (albeit with masks and social distancing). It’s not easy to go back on high alert, but with infection rates, hospitalizations, and now deaths rising across the country, there’s really no choice. The challenge for employers is to be both proactive – using hard-won knowledge and experience, and flexible – ready to change course as conditions demand. And this time around there is greater opportunity to think ahead to life after COVID, so that actions you take today help build the organization you want to be in the future.

We asked four colleagues—thought leaders who have guided Mercer’s response to the pandemic in their different areas of expertise--what advice they have for employers right now. Here’s what they said.

Get back to the basics. Brace yourself – it’s going to be a tough couple of months. With the resurgence, we’re back in response mode. Communication will be just as important now as at the beginning of the pandemic. You are a trusted source of information for your employees, so be sure your own sources of information are reliable and up-to-date as situations change around the country. Three important messages to convey right now:

  • Behavioral health care is for everyone. Remind employees of the resources available to them, and that behavioral health support may be especially important during the holidays, as many will not be able to congregate for their usual family gatherings. 
  • Encourage employees to use telemedicine to reduce contact risk and ease the burden on overloaded healthcare facilities coping with the surge. You can also use the opportunity to set the stage for your longer-term telemedicine strategy.
  • Remind employees to check on maintenance medications and consider ordering a bigger supply to cover a longer period of time. Anything you can do to help members with chronic disease stay compliant is important.

Also, let employees know what you’re doing to help out in your neighborhoods. The economic realities of unemployment, homelessness and food insecurity are going to be more prevalent and more visible. Employers can help by being a source of community support – and if there is a way to involve your employees, so much the better. Helping others is a source of resiliency and strength. – Dr. Lorna Friedman, Global Healthcare Leader

Review your leave and PTO policies. Many employers implemented emergency leave/paid-time off policies earlier this year that are set to expire at the end of 2020. These may need to be extended, as it seems unlikely we will be home free heading into 2021. Also, some policies only provided paid time off for an employee to quarantine once if they or someone they lived with tested positive. But with infection rates rising, some employees may need to quarantine more than once before this year is over.

If you need to update your emergency leave/PTO policy, first review your data to answer some key questions. What percent of employees have exhausted their leave already? Are those employees in a segment of the business that cannot work remotely?  Have employees built up a surplus of PTO that could be used for quarantines? Does the list of eligible reasons for emergency leave include school closings and, if not, should it? And, given the status of the business, how much more PTO can your organization afford to provide? All of these issues will inform the solution that is right for your organization. – Rich Fuerstenberg, Senior Partner

Stay flexible. Plan for the possibility that even schools and workplaces that have opened may need to suddenly shut down due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. Support caregivers by allowing them flexibility in how they work and flexibility from work. And keep looking ahead: We believe that flexible working will become a more permanent way of working, so now focus on long-term sustainability. The majority of employers are already making plans to build the infrastructure to flex at scale for the longer-term. Now is the time to think about how your people programs (performance management, compensation, benefits and wellbeing) perform in a flexible working environment that will likely mean more distributed workforces and more virtual interactions as businesses work to maintain operations through the fall and winter surge. – Mary Ann Sardone, US Talent Solutions Leader

Keep an eye on health benefit costs. While we have reason to believe that the impact of the coronavirus resurgence on medical claims and deferred care will likely be modest, it will of course depend on the length and severity of the surge. This year we’ve seen that increases in COVID testing and COVID treatment costs are often offset by increases in deferred or cancelled care for non-COVID services. If this relationship persists, the health care cost growth should be relatively stable – but actual experience will rangefrom one employer to the next. – Sunit Patel, Chief Actuary

Beth Umland
by Beth Umland

Director of Research, Health, Mercer

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