Employers Grapple With Coronavirus Uncertainty

Review employee leave policies, evaluate travel needs and consider ramping up delivery services.

March 05, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, VA.—While remote work is possible for some American workers, when it comes to retailers, staff must be on-site to run their stores to make sure they remain open to serve their communities. NACS has gathered coronavirus resources to help retailers make informed decisions about operating plans as the United States starts to contend with cases of the COVID-19 virus, which has taken a toll on day-to-day life in China, Iran, Italy, South Korea and a number of other countries in recent weeks.

The United States has at least 128 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus and nine deaths as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases dashboard, which is tracking more than 94,200 COVID-19 cases worldwide. All of the deaths in the U.S. so far have been in Washington state, with eight occurring at a Kirkland, Washington, nursing home. The first-known deaths, a 54-year-old man and a woman in her 80s, both died last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Schools, community groups, local governments and businesses are weighing whether to cancel events, postpone large gatherings, close temporarily or stay open as the nation starts to grapple with the public health threat. (Italy announced on Wednesday that it would close all schools and universities for two weeks as a precaution to control an outbreak in the country.) Many companies are banning international travel until the health outlook improves and asking employees to work remotely as a precaution. Twitter, for instance, has advised all of its employees to work from home.

“The general rule is, use common sense,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

The International Housewares Association called off its Inspired Home Show set for Chicago’s McCormick Place March 14-17, Crain’s Chicago Business reports. Industry conferences in Denver, Florida and Houston also have been postponed, the Wall Street Journal reports. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank announced Tuesday that it would not meet in Washington in April for its annual spring meeting, opting to hold a virtual meeting instead, citing concerns over the coronavirus, the Washington Post reports. Starbucks Wednesday said it would stream its annual shareholders meeting March 18 instead of holding a planned in-person meeting in Seattle, CNBC reports. Last month, NACS postponed the 2020 Convenience Summit Asia, which had been slated to be held this week in Bangkok, Thailand, until March 2-4, 2021.

Advice for Employers

Understandably, employers have lots of questions. Atlanta-based law firm Fisher Phillips addresses some frequent ones in a FAQ document for employers on the COVID-19 coronavirus. The FAQs address such issues as employees refusing to come to work amid fears of becoming infected, requests to wear face masks at work and use of hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

“Perhaps the most important message employers can give to employees is to stay home if sick,” Fisher Phillips said in a legal alert issued Tuesday. “In addition, instruct your workers to take the same actions they would to avoid the flu.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released interim guidance for businesses and employers to plan for and respond to community outbreaks in the United States.

Employers should be careful not to overreact if employees exhibit symptoms of the COVID-19 virus, but they can ask employees to seek medical attention and under most circumstances, request that they leave work, the law firm said.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) guidelines indicate that employees who believe they are in “imminent danger” can refuse to work under certain conditions. OSHA defines this as “any conditions or practices in any place of employment which are such that a danger exists which can reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately or before the imminence of such danger can be eliminated through the enforcement procedures otherwise provided by this Act.”

OSHA describes imminent danger as “threat of death or serious physical harm,” or “a reasonable expectation that toxic substances or other health hazards are present, and exposure to them will shorten life or cause substantial reduction in physical or mental efficiency.”

That said, the “threat or harm” must be immediate. Aside from jobs in the medical field and those that require travel to international destinations significantly affected by the outbreak, Fisher Phillips said “most work conditions in the United States do not meet the elements required for an employee to refuse to work.” The guidance is general, and “employers must determine when this unusual state exists in your workplace before determining whether it is permissible for employees to refuse to work.”

Demand Rises for Delivery Services

U.S. retailers may have to face the likelihood of reduced in-store visits as fewer people head to work or their usual activities each day in the most-affected communities. That means demand for online ordering and delivery services is likely to rise. At the same time, retailers may have to contend with increased absences among their own employees.

There are reports of delivery services in Seattle and other cities being slammed with stepped up demand for grocery and foodservice deliveries. Amazon’s Prime Now and Amazon Fresh delivery services reportedly are straining to meet demand, according to Bloomberg.com. (Amazon alerted staff Tuesday that an employee at its South Lake Union office complex in Seattle has a confirmed case of COVID-19.)

“Delivery might be much better than going to a store, both for society and for individuals,” Karan Girotra, a professor of operations and technology at Cornell University, told the Seattle Times. “But it means that delivery workers will be at the front line of this challenge.”

One approach being used in China is contactless delivery, where couriers leave food at a predetermined spot for customers—or deliver food via robots. That’s something to keep in mind for U.S. convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Casey’s that offer delivery services. (The cover story in next month’s NACS Magazine will explore the ins and outs of c-store deliveries.)

“To successfully navigate this outbreak,” Kelly Lynch, retail solutions manager at ActiveViam, said “retailers need to think about how they can best restore consumer confidence and meet changing consumer buying patterns as the virus potentially spreads. This includes making sure that their online infrastructure is strong enough to cope with an influx of online orders in affected areas, making delivery strategy changes, and just simply providing customers with clear, concise information about any changes that may impact the buying experience.”

NACS continues to monitor the developing situation as the health, safety and wellbeing of the convenience retailing community remains our first priority. At this time, there are no pending changes to our scheduled events. We have ongoing dialogue with public health officials and venue management in host cities and will communicate any event changes directly to attendees and post updates on our events page should they occur.

Look for more coverage in NACS Daily in coming days. The links below are included on our coronavirus resource page at convenience.org.

NACS resources:

  • Disaster and Emergency Preparedness resource page
  • NACS created an emergency preparedness toolkit to help convenience retailers with disaster planning, preparation and recovery. NACS Convenience Store Emergency Planning and Job Aids include a plan evaluation document and Job Aids of tasks and checklists for store employees to perform during emergency and disaster planning and recovery.​ The guide and individual job aids aren’t hazard-specific and several can be used by retailers in pandemic scenarios.
Other resources:
  • CDC updates are available here.
  • CDC interim guidance for businesses is available here
  • CDC Fact Sheet on Novel Coronavirus
  • Comprehensive FAQs For Employers On The COVID-19 Coronavirus by Fisher Phillips
  • Food and Drug Administration Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) page.
  • National Retailing Foundations resources are available here.
  • Johns Hopkins Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases dashboard
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration resources are here.