NJSBA Releases Law Firm Re-Opening Guidance to Aid Process of Returning Safely to Workplaces

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Reports offer recommendations and best practices in nine key areas all must consider
   
July 13, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Kate Coscarelli
732-937-7548
   
NEW BRUNSWICK - The New Jersey State Bar Association Pandemic Task Force Committee on Law Firm Opening and Operations released a collection of interactive reports to provide firms of all sizes with practical guidance as they begin the process of reopening law offices and returning employees to work.
   
The recommendations and best practices are meant to help the New Jersey legal profession maintain safe and healthy law office environments for lawyers, employees, visitors and clients. The collected guidance reflects comprehensive thought, review and analysis of the best practices and strategies to help New Jersey's lawyers. It is interactive with links to resources, caselaw, and sample letters and signage and includes information on a multitude of issues including, daily employee health tracking, law office social distancing practices, appropriate communications with employees, how people should conduct themselves in elevators, what to do when an employee tests positive, cybersecurity insurance policy issues, and what people need to consider about whistleblower complaints. Most important, the reports also highlight best practices for avoiding liability.
   
“We are entering the next chapter in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reopening a firm, whether large or small, will require planning and careful consideration to ensure that everyone who works at a firm or is served by one is protected and safe,” said Christine A. Amalfe, chair of the Committee who is also NJSBA secretary. “We understand the need for law firms to open their offices and get employees back to work and have tried to provide meaningful guidance as leadership navigates these uncertain times.
   
“We have tapped the wisdom of firms and experts around New Jersey to provide the best and most current guidance designed to help the legal profession return to the workplace while accommodating government and scientific guidelines essential to protecting the health of the public.”
   
The Committee offers guidance on nine topics. They are: 
Health Screening and Monitoring
Law Office Workplace Logistics
Best Practices Regarding EEO Issues 
Multi-Tenanted Facilities 
Considerations for Insurance Policyholders
Whistleblower Complaints
Communications Strategies 
Legal Liability Considerations 
Changes to Handbooks, Policies and Procedures 
   
The Committee noted that the reports are meant to be a starting point. The circumstances relating to COVID-19 change daily and local, state and federal guidance is modified to address those changing circumstances. It is critical to stay abreast of the current guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control; New Jersey Department of Health; the New Jersey Governor’s Executive Orders and other state and federal updates.
   
The Committee's reports are part of the work of the New Jersey State Bar Association Pandemic Task Force, which is harnessing the power of the NJSBA's members to examine issues facing the legal community as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis.
   
Read on for a summary of each interactive report. NOTE: To ensure you can access all features of each report, download the reports you wish to read to your computer.
   
Law Office Workplace Logistics: While telecommuting is still the norm for many firms, law firm leadership must begin planning for a safe return to the office. Advance preparation of the workspace and implementation of appropriate policies are key to a smooth transition to onsite work. The following is not a one-size-fits-all plan but is intended to provide overall best practices that may be relevant to your firm and to provoke thought and discussion in our gradual return to the office.
   
Health Screening and Monitoring: Prompt identification and isolation of potentially infectious individuals is a critical step in protecting workers, customers, visitors, and others at a worksite. Effective methods to reduce the likelihood of transmission of COVID-19 among employees include daily health screening and monitoring for potential exposure. While privacy concerns always exist, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) permits reasonable symptom screening and potential exposure inquiries during a pandemic. Policies and protocols can be put in place to mandate regular symptom screening, including daily temperature checks and other health monitoring.
   
Best Practices Regarding EEO Issues: Firms must consider state and federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws when addressing issues related to COVID-19 and return-to-work planning. In addition to complying with New Jersey’s broad anti-discrimination statute (the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD)), firms also should consider guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Here are some best practices to help employers navigate return-to-work issues, while remaining compliant with EEO laws.
   
Considerations for Insurance Policyholders: COVID-19 raises a number of insurance issues for businesses. Firm may need to update various policies to preserve your rights to coverage. Every firm should discuss their insurance needs with their broker and also conduct their own review of all policies to ensure that insurance protections and coverage gaps are understood and evaluated as part of your ongoing business plans.
   
Whistleblower Complaints in the Time of COVID: As businesses begin to reopen, employers will be faced with complaints by employees about allegedly unsafe working conditions and requests to work from home. The potential for employee “whistleblower” claims under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act is heightened in this new reality. Aggrieved employees may also file complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the state of New Jersey or local health departments. Thus, employers need to take seriously employee complaints about working conditions and requests to work at home, be extra vigilant and prepare and maintain detailed documentation supporting their plan, as well as any performance or business reasons for any employment action impacting a potential plaintiff.
   
Legal Liability Considerations: The below recommendations are guidance about the legal liability considerations that must be taken when reopening a law firm. Of utmost concern is to be vigilant about knowing and reviewing the latest Center for Disease Control (CDC) and state and federal government responses, including Executive Orders, which are critical to compliance, avoidance of harm and liability mitigation.
   
Changes to Handbooks, Policies and Procedures: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many law firm leaders to reevaluate their handbooks, policies and procedures. Each law firm will need to determine whether it is appropriate to make permanent handbook, policy and procedure revisions or create an addendum or standalone handbook or set of policies and procedures to govern this health crisis. Most importantly, regardless of format chosen law firm leaders must be prepared to continuously revise or modify their handbooks, policies and procedures as Executive orders are issued and/or new "best practices" information or guidance becomes available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or other state or federal agencies.
   
Multi-Tenanted Facilities Guidance: Lawyers with offices in multi-tenanted buildings must consider the safety of all who enter their shared space as they reopen. Worker safety is impacted by the maintenance and operations of the entire building. To provide a fuller measure of workplace safety, law firm leaders consider many factors in evaluating a building’s preparedness and in reopening discussions with landlords, building management teams and fellow tenants.
   
Communications Strategies: Now, more than ever, it is important to communicate in a thoughtful and direct way with your team, which includes employees, clients, vendors, and the public. It will help people remain calm and confident if information is shared frequently and clearly.
   
Committee on Law Firm Opening and Operations members
   
Christine A. Amalfe, chair
Domenick Carmagnola
Suzanne M. Cerra
William Denver
Michael G. Donahue III
Steven J. Eisenstein
Elyssa A. Goldstein
Robert B. Hille
Tracey Hinson
Michael J. Marone
Carolyn F. O’Connor
Renee A. Rubino
Thomas P. Scrivo

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