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5 Issues to Consider in Your Company's Response to COVID-19

Published Mar 13, 2020 by Bob Harvey

Businesses across Houston and around the world are considering how best to react to the rapidly changing COVID-19 situation. It’s a question on everyone’s minds. But each case is different and business leaders have to evaluate their situation, workforce and all of the factors surrounding their business.

The Partnership asks business leaders to consider focusing on this general framework of thinking so you can make smart decisions for your company.

We’ve broken it down into five buckets.

  1. Employee/Workplace Hygiene and Safety
  2. Travel Policies
  3. Policies for Meetings and Large Gatherings 
  4. Sick and PTO Leave
  5. Telecommuting

Each of these areas involves minimizing risk of exposure as well as the risk of spreading the virus. Achieving those goals is a community-wide effort, and businesses are key parts of the puzzle. 

Employee/Workplace Hygiene and Safety

First employee and workplace hygiene and safety.

Businesses must encourage their employees to stay home if they are showing respiratory illness symptoms or if someone in their household is.

And then there are the basics:
•    Wash your hands frequently
•    Stop shaking hands
•    Clean your workplaces frequently and properly
•    Avoid close contact, put distance between yourself and other people 

The CDC has great advice on what workplaces can do.  

Note that the Partnership has compiled an online resource with a number of good toolkits for businesses to think about how to response to the virus. 

Business Travel Policies

Next, let’s talk about business travel policies, both domestic and international.

The Partnership surveyed our board over the last two days and received about 30 responses. Keep in mind most but not all are large companies, but this includes some mid-market companies as well.

On this travel question, 82 percent have modified or outright banned nonessential domestic business travel…97% have changed their international travel policies.

On the domestic side, we’re seeing a few scenarios, ranging from:
•    Outright domestic travel bans, to
•    Bans on non-essential travel, where essential travel must be approved by a senior executive
•    Or a hybrid, that bans most travel except for client travel

This gets tricky for client service companies – particularly when we look at audit and tax firms – this is busy season. Being face to face with clients is the traditional model and many firms are having to rethink this.

On the international side, it’s more clear-cut. Most are outright bans, with some exceptions for client travel with executive approval.

Personal Travel Policies

On the personal travel side, this is a question that can be difficult because it touches people’s personal lives. 

But it’s our belief that business leaders have a responsibility to protect their entire workforce and ensure they are coming into a reasonably safe environment.

Several companies are implementing travel logs where employees must report any personal travel.

Here’s an example of why this is important. Say an employee travels for Spring Break and there is not a known outbreak of the virus when they are at their destination.  They come back, have no symptoms, but then five days later an outbreak pops up in that place.

Given the incubation periods and testing windows, the employee was likely there at the time of transmission. The employer knows from the log that the employee travelled there. It’s time to have a conversation to gauge if there was possible exposure.

The medical folks would say – self-quarantine for 14 days if there is a risk the person was exposed.

So, the log is tough, but is an important thing to think about. Know that some are restricting logging to just international travel and perhaps cruises.

Policies for Meeting and Gatherings

Next in our survey, the Partnership asked about employees attending meetings and gatherings – there was an 80/20 split favoring the limitation on meeting size and business gatherings/events.

Some are outright bans from attending outside business functions, but many are limiting the number that may be in attendance at an event. 

Some are as small groups of 10, we’ve chosen 50 at the Partnership, and many are somewhere in between that. It’s worth noting that this has knocked out attendance at major conferences in particular.

Sick/PTO Policy

The fourth area of the five-part framework is your Sick and PTO Policy. 

Only a third of the companies in our survey had looked at this, two-thirds had not. 

But it is important to note that many of the companies who said they were not adjusting their PTO policies already had very relaxed policies, some who even offered unlimited sick time.

Employers should expand their thinking about PTO as the universe of employees who should not come to the office goes beyond those who are visibly sick. 

Key things to think about:

  1. Sick people should stay home – penalizing absences can incentivize reckless and dangerous behavior, potentially exposing others in the work force
  2. Potentially exposed employees should stay home – if someone has travelled to a high risk region, or comes to find out they possibly came into contact with an infected person in a community setting – these folks will likely need to self-quarantine for at least 14 days.
  3. Another group to think about are employees in vulnerable populations – this includes employees with existing respiratory issues, or immune system deficiencies—even age is a factor. Some say the age of 60, 65 or 70. Essentially as you get older, the risk of a dangerous infection increases.

How should you handle these folks? They may be healthy enough to work, but do you want to risk having them get exposed in your work environment? Perhaps consider teleworking for these employees.

How about employees who have family members with these conditions – it would be bad if your employee brings home the virus from work.

Again, this is all about minimizing risk of exposure.

Teleworking Policy 

The final policy area in the framework is related to telecommuting.

About 65% of respondents to the Partnership survey already had some form of teleworking in place. And more than half were taking a look at altering their policies in light of the virus.

The medical experts will talk about the need to avoid being in close contact with others, and telecommuting can be important to this.

But you have to think about the roles within your company. Can all jobs be done remotely from home? Do you have enough laptops so people can be productive while at home? With our IT infrastructure support a higher volume of remote log-ins?

When setting up a telecommuting policy, should it be universal telecommuting for all employees? 

One example we have heard from the construction industry (and this applies in some refinery and petrochemical situations), where you have a project team that must be onsite. 

You split that work team into two (or three or four) groups. One team works from home for two weeks while the other one is on site, and then you switch. 

The goal is that if you lose a team due to exposure, you have another team available before you cannot provide the service to the client.  

Again, those are the five things to think about: 

  • Employee Hygiene 
  • Travel 
  • Meetings and Large Gatherings 
  • Sick/PTO Leave
  • Teleworking

Houston is a can-do city, and with your help, we can minimize the spread of this virus and hopefully get on the path to recovery soon.

The Partnership's Houston Coronavirus Resources guide provides information around the virus to businesses and individuals in our region. We will continue to update this page as new information becomes available.

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Houston Economy to Face Major Job Losses, Recession from Coronavirus and Oil Plunge

4/1/20
Houston is likely to see significant job losses and a prolonged drain on its economy from the COVID-19 coronavirus.   That was one of the major takeaways from a virtual presentation by Patrick Jankowski, Partnership Senior Vice President of Research, on March 31. Jankowski discussed his latest analysis of COVID-19, collapsing oil prices, the imminent U.S. recession, and their impact on Houston’s economy.  Jankowski stressed that because of the unprecedented and ongoing nature of the situation, predicting the economic impact is difficult at this time. “With the situation changing daily, we can’t really get a good read on what’s actually going on yet,” he said.  Jankowski referenced the next Bureau of Labor Statistics’ jobs report, which will be based on the number of employees on payroll during the second week of March and won’t include the waves of layoffs that happened during the third and fourth weeks of March. It won’t be until the April report is released in early May when we will see the real impact on the job market. Pandemic will determine recession’s length and severity  “We are coming off a period of 113 consecutive months of job growth, the longest expansion in US history and a phenomenal jobs report,” Jankowski said. “Last week we saw 3.3 million claims for unemployment benefits, and I believe that number will only rise as more people are laid off, the system becomes less overloaded and people figure out how to apply for benefits.”  Given the single week of job losses based on the initial claims for unemployment insurance in Texas and Houston’s share of Texas’ jobs, Jankowski estimates mid-March losses in the region will be around 37,945 jobs.  Jankowski noted that measures to combat the coronavirus are also combating the economy. He referenced the U.S. GDP forecasts from major financial institutions that estimate a decline in GDP for the first quarter of the year that continues through the rest of the year.   “From my perspective - yes, we are in a recession and the situation will worsen in Q2,” Jankowski said. “We hope to have some growth in Q3, but we will end of the year worse off than at the beginning.”  Add that to the drop in oil prices and the Texas Railroad Commission being asked to regulate crude oil production for this first time since the 1970s, Jankowski believes the crude collapse will only add to Houston’s misery.  Small businesses and other industries hurt the worst  Jankowski mentioned the Partnership’s survey of its small business members and found that 29% were unable to deliver goods or services, 59% are operating below half capacity and the most concerning, that 41% can survive only 1 to 4 weeks.  He also highlighted industry sectors that are most at risk during this initial period and the 777,000 jobs tied to those sectors. The sectors include those impacted by social distancing (like retail), those whose services can’t be delivered remotely (such as plumbers and other home services), those that aren’t considered essential (such as the arts), and most small businesses (that tend to operate on thin margins).   “If this virus continues after May, every job is at risk, every sector is at risk,” Jankowski stressed.  “And even if you are working from home and able to provide services to some degree, you may be affected. We will see additional layoffs to what we’ve already experienced.”  Houston predicted to lose at least 150,000 jobs  There are two ways to predict how Houston will fare – looking at models based on assumption or based on history.   The Institute for Regional Forecasting shows 18 different scenarios of how the virus and oil prices will play out, with the most likely scenario from their prediction showing Houston down by 44,000 jobs. On the other hand, The Perryman Group’s model is forecasting 256,000 jobs lost.   “These are two very different forecasts and you’re really seeing that uncertainty play out in these models,” Jankowski said.   By referencing the history of recessions Houston has experienced, Jankowski estimates Houston’s jobs loss will hover between 150,000 jobs and 350,000 jobs.   “Given how Houston fairs when oil is faring badly and then when the US economy not doing well, we are likely to look like between 2008-09 recession and oil bust we had in the 1980s,” Jankowski said.   With a job loss of 13.2% from 1982, that amounts to about 417,450 jobs today. Using the Great Recession benchmark of 4.5%, that loss is closer to 142,325 jobs.  Collapsing oil prices on par with 1982 energy bust  With the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia spilling onto the world stage and affecting the price of crude, Houston has already felt the effects.   On March 30 of this year, the price of oil closed at $21.07 a barrel. During that same month in 1982, the price was $10.25 but adjusted for inflation, it closed at $24.37 a barrel.   “We can expect crude to slowly climb back into the low $30s by mid-summer without a Russia-Saudi deal,” Jankowski said. “We’ll see any jobs we regained from the 2014 fracking bust disappear and a leaner, smaller industry in the next two years with more consolidations and bankruptcies taking place.”  Houston in one word – resilient  One of the biggest determining factors in an economic rebound will be the level of fear people still have around the virus, Jankowski said. Even on the downward slope people will practice at least a degree of social distancing. He reiterated the damaging shock to consumer confidence the virus has caused.   “The economy really won’t be able to recover until people feel comfortable spending again. However, if there’s one word I would use to describe Houston, it would be resilient,” Jankowski said. “We've been through five downturns since the 1980s and yet the economy is larger now and more diverse than ever before.” 
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