As a Cannabis Employer, Are You Prepared for Your Legal Obligations in Relation to the Coronavirus Epidemic?

The cannabis industry is a complicated space, due to both its youth and the legal circumstances surrounding it. And what complicates things even more, is the coronavirus epidemic rapidly spreading across the country and many parts of the globe. Whether you’re a cultivator, dispensary, manufacturer, or an ancillary service provider, you have a responsibility to focus on employee safety. As many business owners and leaders look over their policies and procedures, they also begin to wonder about the kind of legal risk that a viral situation exposes them to. If your business doesn’t have the required policies and response plans in place to address a situation involving communicable diseases, it could be at risk for a number of legal concerns to do with human resources.

Nearly every country has laws in place to help make sure that workers are protected from physical harm at their places of work. In the U.S., employees have the Occupational Safety and Health Act to turn to for protection. If a worker in the U.S. contracts an infection while at work, there are circumstances in which the employer may encounter legal penalties related to unfair labor practices, negligence, workers’ compensation, discrimination, or invasion of privacy.

As an employer, paying attention to employee safety and legal compliance can help you keep your employees safe, and keep your business safe from legal risk. However, most cannabis-related businesses are running with a bareboned staff. A dispensary for example may have a receptionist, a manager, and an owner. With such a small staff, it often is nearly impossible to stay on top of all the regulations, payroll, workers compensation, and other HR services, let alone the safety of your staff due to a pandemic. As such, a number of cannabis businesses are turning to a professional employer organization (PEO). A PEO is simply an outsourcing firm that provides the above mentioned payroll and HR services to small and medium sized businesses (SMBs).

OROleafhr, a PEO designed specifically for the cannabis industry, recommends that if you run a business that employs people, you need to make sure that your business follows the five steps described below to stay safe during the coronavirus epidemic.

Keep yourself well-informed

Someone at your business needs to be placed in charge of seeking out reliable information on public health and keeping up with all official recommendations and requirements by local, state, and national authorities. The person in charge needs to stay informed about public health updates related to the coronavirus outbreak from the C.D.C. and the W.H.O. in the U.S., the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control in Europe, and the N.H.S. in the U.K.

Companies need to be able to prove that corporate policy has stayed in close alignment with recommendations by the authorities. Being able to prove compliance is an important safeguard against legal action, in the event of lawsuits that question the company’s efforts to keep employees safe.

Communicate with your employees, and pay attention to hygiene

In the event of a lawsuit, companies need to be able to demonstrate that they’ve taken every effort to provide employees with good information about how to prevent the spread of the infection, and also given them the ability to act on the information provided. Organizations, then, need to educate employees, tell them about how the coronavirus spreads, and about the symptoms. They need to educate their employees on public health guidelines and tell them where further official information is available. PEOs can be particularly helpful in this area as they often develop documentation and other materials and processes for communicating policies, rules and regulations, and other safety measures.

Employers also need to put in place measures that help employees follow guidelines to lower the risk of infection in the workplace. For instance, they need to be provided with handwashing facilities or hand sanitizers, and employers need to make sure to have door knobs, water coolers and elevators disinfected, and to make remote work and shift work possible.

Workers need to be told about the kind of COVID-19 infection symptoms they should watch out for. If they have a medical vulnerability to infection, or if there are members of their families with weakened immunity, those workers need to be provided with enhanced protection. Moreover, when staff members appear to suffer from symptoms, they should be asked to stay at home so as to not bring the infection to work.

Should you fail to provide detailed guidance of this kind to your employees, your business could be open to liability.

Put restrictions in place about having workers return to work

If a manager at any level of your organization makes decisions on restricting employees from coming to work based on their ethnicity or their country of origin, the company could end up facing discrimination lawsuits. Restrictions about who should work and who should stay at home should instead be based on fact, by applying official guidelines, and with the guidance of a medical professional. You should have written guidelines that clearly state when employees who are potentially infected will be allowed to return to work, and any communications with employees in these matters should be properly documented.

Think about your leave and pay policies

Employers need to consider whether they are legally obligated to provide employees with days off if they come down with a COVID-19 infection. You need to carefully think about whether your current policies need adjustment in light of the epidemic. In the U.S. these matters are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Workers’ Compensation Rules for different states. If there are exclusions relating to COVID-19 in the insurance policy that covers your workers, you should be aware of them. For instance, if your employees have travel insurance you should know that many of these policies exclude infections related to pandemics.

Employers should also consider whether they need to expand the protections and benefits provided, rethink income protection policies that they have for workers on leave, and adjust, wherever necessary, benefits for employees who run out of sick days.

It makes sense for employers to do more than to think about simply doing the minimum necessary under the law. For instance, if an employee goes on a personal trip to a country where the coronavirus epidemic is widespread, having that employee return to work upon completion of the trip may put at risk everyone who’s at work. You may need to offer the employee paid leave to stay on at home, even if you aren’t legally required to. If you don’t, and if infections occur at the company as a result, you could be exposed to lawsuits.

Keep your employees’ privacy in mind

Because of its reputation, a dispensary for example will likely be diligent about keeping within the confines of federal law and in so doing, relies heavily on patient verification systems. These systems usually contain protected health information (PHI) such as medical record numbers, patient contact information (including addresses), diagnosis codes, and other personal information used for verification (such as driver’s license numbers). With a pandemic like the coronavirus, employees need to be clear about the kinds of protections they need to have in place for employee health data that they hand over to the authorities for public health purposes, should the information be required. In most cases, even states with rigorous rules to do with employee privacy do allow employers to disclose health data when the government requests it.

Finally, you need to make sure that your business has a plan for the worst-case scenario. If key decision-makers in your company should contract the infection, you should make sure that you have succession plans in place. Should the epidemic lead to a need to furlough or lay off employees, you need to follow all legal requirements. The law prescribes formal procedures that businesses need to stay in compliance with when they lay off certain numbers of employees.

Planning ahead for every kind of scenario can help your business stay clear of legal challenges as you deal with the direct consequences of the epidemic. OROleafhr is here to help with planning ahead and keeping your focus on the safety and welfare of your employees and ensuring your business continues during these challenging times. Contact us today for more information on how we can help.