As the coronavirus spreads, more companies are asking employees to work from home (or vice versa). A recent Wall Street Journal article states that “[n]early half of 158 U.S. businesses surveyed … in mid-February said they were implementing or expanding remote-work programs due to the epidemic.” Politicians are actively encouraging remote work trend. A group of United States Senators, including Senators Reed and Whitehouse, have urged industry trade groups to expand alternative work options.
Businesses that are implementing or expanding remote work in response to the coronavirus—and particularly those that may be asking non-exempt, temporary, or lower-skilled employees to work remotely for the first time—may face challenges and issues that they have not previously had occasion to consider and plan for. As businesses expand their network remotely by (e.g.) adding more licenses for employees to access resources outside of the office, they should also be vigilant in ensuring that those new connections are secure by updating policies and educating employees about best practices, especially in preventing any mishandling of their sensitive information. We highlight a few such challenges below.
- Cybersecurity. By now, the risks of data insecurity—and the recent influx of governmental regulations concerning data privacy—are well-known. But many businesses have built their cybersecurity plans and policies with the assumption that their workforce would be in the office. If a business wants to maintain compliance with the requirements imposed by law, its insurance company, or its customers’ best interests, it may need to act fast to upgrade infrastructure or issue new policies. For example, employers may wish to consider whether to bar employees from using public Wi-Fi or other unsecured access points, which may be vulnerable to hackers attempting to access the company’s information and data. Businesses also should be aware of the potential for their employee’s mishandling of sensitive data either physically removed from the office or accessed on a shared network from a remote location. Employers should be proactive and establish policies and training to educate their employees about the risks associated with mishandling data and how to prevent it. Establish a policy—or remind employees of the policy—that employees should not transfer files between work and personal computers when working from home. Proactively list the software employees should be using and those that they should not.
- New or different job responsibilities for remote workers. Employees that typically work in an office environment may have to provide progress reports more frequently or deliver different work product to their employer. Consider how these and other new demands of remote work interact with a business’ job descriptions and labor contracts. Will non-exempt employees have to work longer or different hours, thereby requiring overtime pay? Consider installing time-clock software on remote workers’ machines.
- Provision of adequate training and equipment. In recent years, many businesses have issued new employees laptops, phones or other devices that allow employees to work remotely. Businesses should consider whether their employees are fully-equipped to perform their job requirements and whether the employer needs to chip in for disability-related accommodations that may not exist at home (such as accessible and assistive technology and specific devices). Employers may want to determine the extent to which they can mandate the use of personal devices (such as personal cell phones and computers/laptops not issued by or subsidized by the employer) during remote work.
- Workers’ Compensation. The fact that an employee may be working remotely may not insulate a business from its liability if an employee injures him or herself while working. Businesses should consider implementing (or updating) remote working policies to manage such workers’ compensation risks, such as outlining expectations for employees working from home, establishing guidelines for a home office set up, such as a designated working area and providing training regarding work-station setup and safety measures, as well as setting fixed work hours and rest periods that help in assessing whether an injury occurred while working.
Our attorneys are working hard to stay ahead and to respond to your questions and concerns as we continue to monitor the impact of the coronavirus, especially its impact to businesses throughout the Northeast Region.
 Sarah Needleman, “Coronavirus Keeps Workers at Home,” Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2020.