The Complete Guide to Updating Your Employee Handbook for COVID-19

Gusto Editors

After months of sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees are heading back to the workplace. But, business-as-usual hasn’t resumed yet; the workplace many left in March won’t look the same—guidelines for minimizing exposure and maintaining distance will impact every aspect of work life.

Before you bring your employees back, consider updating your employee handbook to reflect the new reality and communicate these fresh guidelines, policies, and recommendations to your team. This guide surfaces the sections of your employee handbook you should review and revise as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What should be covered within your updated employee handbook

We’ve outlined the major areas to consider below. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but we’ll get through it quickly. Keep scrolling for a deep dive into each section:

  • Company Culture and Values
    • Updates to communication processes
  • Equal Opportunity Employment
    • Reasonable accommodations
  • Conduct and Behavior
    • Non-harassment and non-discrimination policy
  • Attendance Policies
    • Remote work guidelines
    • Capacity limits
    • Travel policy
  • Leave Policies
    • FFCRA and FMLA
    • State-specific leave guidelines
    • Company sick leave policy
  • Workplace Safety
    • Social distancing
      • In-person meeting procedures
      • Updates to facilities
      • Communal areas
      • Capacity limits for customers
      • Changes to operations
    • Hygiene recommendations
      • Personal protective equipment (PPE)
      • Personal hygiene in the workplace
      • Facilitating a clean workplace
    • COVID-19 testing policy
    • When an onsite employee gets sick
    • Workplace safety training
    • Visitor policies
  • Health Insurance Changes

Company Culture and Values

The COVID-19 outbreak has underscored the obligation of employers to protect the health and safety of their employees. Use your employee handbook as an avenue to confirm your commitment to the well-being of your teams by communicating the actionable steps you are taking to protect them. 

If you have implemented new processes around creating a communication feedback loop so that employees can surface their concerns about the pandemic, articulate these processes here. For example, do you have a new protocol in place for collecting employee questions? Detail that protocol clearly to reassure your staff that their apprehensions about the pandemic are being carefully considered throughout the company reopening process.

If you plan to send regular updates to your teams on new COVID-related issues or guidance, set those expectations within this section of the handbook.

Equal Opportunity Employment (EEO)

Your employee handbook should already clearly articulate the company’s EEO statement and emphasize your organization’s commitment to hiring individuals based on competency without regard for race, color, religion, national origin, or familial affiliation. 

This section may also include a statement on providing reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals in accordance with ADA guidance. Consider updating this statement to include your company’s policies for accommodating employees who may be more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

Conduct and Behavior

In this section, the employee handbook typically addresses your organization’s non-harassment and non-discrimination policies. If your employee handbook already defines harassing or discriminatory conduct, modify those definitions to include statements on forbidding the harassment or discrimination of employees who have been sick or are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. While your organization should outline a protocol for managing sick employees (or those suspected to be sick), strictly prohibiting the poor treatment of these employees is critical. To ensure you comply with federal instruction, review the guidance released by the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC)

Attendance Policies

Remote Work Guidelines 

In response to COVID-19, the CDC has issued interim guidance for businesses recommending remote work when and where possible. If the nature of your organization’s work allows for this, encourage employees to telework and use this section of the handbook to detail your expectations and policies for:

  • Telecommunications (this should include communication best-practices, new workflows, documentation requirements, and remote meeting guidance)
  • Online hours (this should include how you expect employees to signal their availability to their teams)
  • Time zone accommodations
  • Plans to distribute home office equipment or stipends
  • Security guidelines for using company devices and protecting sensitive information
  • Software installation
  • Remote work expenses for internet and cell phone usage (some states require employers to reimburse workers for these)

Additionally,  working parents around the country are struggling to balance working from home with childcare and other obligations that arise while teleworking. If you are offering your teams flexibility and/or support, outline how you plan to do this and be sure to avoid gender-based assumptions on who may have caretaking responsibilities.

Capacity Limits

If working from home isn’t possible for certain members—or the entirety—of your team, consider whether capacity limits are required or recommended in your state or region. You may be obligated to restrict the number of employees that occupy a certain space. Give deliberate thought to your attendance policies with regard to these limitations and instruct on those policies in this section of the employee handbook.

Travel policy

Travel may increase the chance of spreading coronavirus and put your employees at risk of being exposed. The CDC suggests implementing flexible work travel policies to minimize how, when, and where your employees travel for work; this means that you may want to reconsider which trips are essential and what business can be conducted via teleconference. Your employee handbook should detail and offer best-practices on how employees can replace trips with alternatives such as video meetings or phone calls. 

For work travel that cannot be avoided, here are some policy updates to consider implementing and adding to your employee handbook: 

  • Non-essential work travel will only be resumed in accordance with local, state, and federal public health bodies 
  • Your organization will refer to the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices before scheduling a trip
  • Employees should be encouraged to meet with others outside (when possible) and maintain six feet of social distance at all times
  • The company should provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks and hand sanitizer, and instruct on usage protocols
  • Certain employee travelers will be required to quarantine for 14 days after a trip

Consider implementing a travel cancellation policy and protocol that employees should adhere to if COVID-19 symptoms emerge. Also, communicate a protocol for employees who develop symptoms while traveling that includes notifying key members of the organization,  self-isolating, and seeking medical attention.

When it comes to your employees’ personal travel, this issue is a bit murkier. Certain states like Colorado and New York prohibit employers from restricting employee after-hours activities. However, in most states you can require that employees notify you (or key members of your organization) about travel plans so you can take necessary measures to keep the rest of your teams safe. 

Leave Policies

This is a must-revise section of your company’s employee handbook; in light of COVID-19, the president has signed new federal emergency legislation, and many states have modified their laws as well. Additionally, it may be wise to implement company-wide regulations in order to discourage employees who exhibit symptoms from coming into work. Updating your policies to support your employees throughout this unprecedented period will go a long way toward limiting transmission. Let’s break it down. 

Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) 

Signed on March 18, 2020, this federal legislation applies to any organization that has less than 500 employees. Here, we’ll touch on the policies at a high level, but for an in-depth understanding of the FFCRA, see this comprehensive guide

Among other things, the FFCRA:

  • Provides two weeks of paid leave to employees who contract coronavirus or must care for children affected by the virus
  • Temporarily expands the FMLA to cover loss of income when an employee must provide childcare due to COVID-related closures
  • Gives employers tax incentives to provide the paid leave outlined in this act 

Make sure you understand how employee leave policies have changed as a result of COVID and communicate these changes to your employees within the handbook. 

State-specific leave guidelines

A number of states have stepped in and changed their leave policies to supplement or act in parallel with federal guidance. Review your state specific COVID-19 leave policy to inform any changes you should make. Be sure to include any of these leave policy modifications in the company employee handbook. 

Company sick leave policy

In addition to federal, state, and local guidelines, you may choose to implement company specific instruction on taking sick leave in order to protect your employees. 

The CDC recommends that anyone who feels even just a bit under the weather should stay home, which can greatly impact employees who tend to brush off the sniffles or a headache in an effort to conserve their sick days. If one of your employees tests positive for COVID-19, it’s possible they will be out on sick leave for weeks. 

Consider the following, and if relevant, update your policies and instruct your employees within the employee handbook: 

  • Provide advances on future sick leave
  • Permit employees to donate sick leave days to one another
  • Implement non-punitive “emergency sick leave” policies
  • Allow employees to take sick leave without providing a COVID-19 test result or a healthcare provider’s note

Make your company policies clear within this section of the employee handbook. 

Workplace Safety

If your teams or patrons of your business will be assembling within work spaces, make sure you think through how to keep them safe and restrict exposure. Those infected with COVID-19 may be both asymptomatic and contagious, so deliberate measures must be taken to minimize the risk of transmission in your workplace. Below are the workplace safety policies to consider and the sections of your employee handbook to update or add. 

Social distancing

As you likely know, the CDC instructs people to keep at least six feet of distance from one another. Adopt this as policy within your workspace and discourage handshaking in favor of no-contact greetings. 

If customers or patrons visit your workspace, echo the same policy you’ve outlined for your employees by dissuading physical contact or gathering in close quarters. Being that customers won’t have access to your employee handbook, consider posting signage in your space that clearly directs customers on expectations and relieves your employees of the burden of having to articulate company social distancing policies to patrons.  

Enforce and communicate these recommendations clearly to your employees within the handbook. 

In-person meeting procedures

As already discussed, you should shift meetings to virtual spaces and utilize videoconferencing whenever possible. However, if in-person meetings are required, outline clear instructions on how your employees should conduct themselves to stay safe. 

Be sure to hold in-person meetings in open, well-ventilated spaces that allow attendees to maintain a social distance of six feet. Prohibit handshaking or any physical touch and mandate the use of face masks during the meetings; consider asking employees to wipe down surfaces before leaving a communal room.

Communal areas

Limit or prohibit gatherings in conference rooms or common areas and close off any unnecessary communal spaces. If in the past, you served food and beverages to your employees throughout the day, pause this perk during the pandemic. 

The CDC also offers guidance on facilitating a clean workplace that we’ll cover below. Utilize the guidance below to disinfect public spaces.

Updates to facilities

Are you making updates to your workspace like putting partitions between desks, installing sneeze guards or upgrading the ventilation systems? The CDC has a few recommendations you may want to consider:

  • Switch to entirely no-touch trash receptacles
  • Provide tissues for covering coughs and sneezes
  • Keep ample soap and water, or alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, at all sinks
  • Install touchless hand sanitizer stations throughout the office

Any changes you make within your office or facility should be detailed in the employee handbook so your workers understand the purpose of these changes.

Capacity limits for customers

We covered restrictions on employee capacity above in the Attendance Policy section, but you also may want to review the local limitations on the number of patrons allowed in your space. Make sure all your employees are aware of this by including these rules in the employee handbook. 

Changes to operations

Are you planning on making any changes to the way your business operates in order to keep your teams safe, limit transmission or other COVID-related reasons? If so, make sure you cover this in the employee handbook. The more information you can offer to your workers the smoother the transition will be. 

Hygiene recommendations

It may be wise to dedicate a section in your employee handbook to hygiene recommendations for all workers and provide policies on how customers are expected to behave in your workplace throughout the pandemic. Below are some specifics. 

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) 

The CDC advises wearing cloth face masks, as these can minimize the chance of spreading COVID-19. 

Your handbook should outline policies regarding cloth face mask use in your office, including where and when office face masks need to be worn—be sure to detail proper mask wearing protocols.

Instruct your teams to use hand sanitizer and gloves, particularly when using high-touch surfaces like tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, keyboards, phones, etc.

Do you plan to provide PPE to your employees or reimburse them for these expenses? Are you creating workplace stations with disposable disinfecting wipes and disposable gloves so employees can wipe down high-touch surfaces as needed? If so, articulate these updates in this section of the employee handbook.  

Personal hygiene in the workplace

The CDC has created a wealth of resources for hand hygiene that instructs on simple but effective ways your workers can limit the spread and keep themselves safe. Share these resources with your employees and encourage them to share. Your employee handbook should outline any changes to your office that encourage hand hygiene

Facilitating a clean workplace

Frequent disinfection of common touch points will be a new reality at your newly-reopened workplace. The CDC suggests that your cleaning plan include the following provisions:

  • Use EPA-approved disinfectants to regularly clean and disinfect high-touch workplace surfaces, including but not limited to workstations, doorknobs, elevator buttons, keyboards, and handrails
  • Employees should minimize the use of office equipment such as phones and computers that are not located at their own work stations
  • If someone in your company has been infected with COVID-19 or is suspected of contracting the virus, the CDC offers additional measures for cleaning that include opening outside doors and windows, waiting 24 hours before beginning disinfection. 

If you implement any of these recommendations, be sure to communicate them in your employee handbook.

COVID-19 testing policy

Whether to test your employees—and how to do it—is a complex issue that requires thorough consideration. We’ve put together an in-depth guide on testing your employees for COVID-19, so be sure to read that for a detailed understanding. But, at a high level, these are the factors that you should include in your deliberation: 

  • There are many type of COVID-19 screening or tests—decide which is most appropriate to use
  • Decide whether employees should be screened on site or at home
  • Think through who will cover the expense of the test
  • There are certain medical inquiries you are allowed make and other you are not; know these before questioning employees 
  • Understand how best to handle an employee who refuses to get tested for a sincerely-held religious belief or another reason
  • Know how to record medical  test results to maintain your employees’ privacy 

Certain states have mandated requirements around testing, so make sure you understand whether you are obligated to implement specific regulations. Again, read the guide and craft a comprehensive policy around testing. Once you’ve done this, be sure to communicate that policy within your employee handbook. 

When an onsite employee gets sick

If an onsite employee is sick, send them home. Do not expose your other team members to someone who has contracted the virus. Be sure to think through: 

  • How to communicate with the members of your organization who may have been exposed while also protecting the privacy of the sick employee and ensuring no harassment takes place
  • How to transport the sick worker home
  • Whether you should close down your workplace for a period of time
  • How to properly disinfect the workplace 

This plan should be crafted before any employees exhibit COVID symptoms and should be covered in your employee handbook. 

Workplace safety training 

Several states now require COVID-19 safety training. Be sure you understand if this is mandated in your region and how to devise a training program. Even if training is not a local requirement, you may want to consider it in order to keep your teams safe. 

Communicate your expectations and company policies around training completion for employees within the handbook. 

Visitor policies

Craft and communicate a policy for visitors. Will they be allowed? If so, will you limit the number of visitors permitted? Will visitors be screened or be required to submit to health or temperature checks upon entering the building?

Think through the answers to these questions and include your guidance in the employee handbook. 

Health insurance changes due to COVID-19

In May 2019, the IRS issued guidance outlining that employees may have temporary mid-year flexibility to make changes to their employer-sponsored healthcare flexible spending accounts (FSAs), health insurance plans, and dependent care assistance programs. While your revised employee handbook should not include this, it should reference it—legally, this information should be in a Summary Plan document which the employee handbook can point to. 

Implementing your new handbook

With so many changes in your workplace, it’s vital your employees know what’s new and what’s changing. Once your plan is developed and your employee handbook has been updated, ensure that your employees know and understand the new procedures and practices. 

Recommended ways to share this new information include:

  • Conduct training sessions to educate your employees on how to follow new policies that minimize the spread of COVID-19
  • Consider whether to install any of the COVID-19 posters created by the CDC
  • Develop a dedicated stream of communications to contractors and other visitors to inform them in advance of your policy changes, and ensure that visitors are able to adhere to your changes (if you allowing visitors)
  • Create and test communications channels to effectively and quickly inform employees of potential exposure and of any future office closures
  • Consider creating “cheat sheets” that briefly summarize the main changes to your handbook, and distributing those via email along with the new policy

Your employee handbook evolves as COVID-19 does

COVID-19 remains a prominent public health concern, and as more discoveries about the virus are revealed, public health recommendations may change—in turn your policies should shift, as well. Be sure to create a flexible workflow that allows you to evolve your employee handbook to reflect this dynamic period.

For updated and continued guidance on how to manage your teams throughout the pandemic, check out the Gusto COVID-19 Resource Hub

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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