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Commentary: Preparing to return to work during the pandemic

Lawyers throughout Missouri have been helping clients to survive the explosion of COVID-19-related legal and health risks. Now, as Missouri and its cities allow businesses to reopen, lawyers are turning their attention inward to keep their clients and employees safe as law firms return to work.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s guidance includes recommendations on policies and procedures all employers can implement to provide safe and healthful workplaces. OSHA notes this guidance is “not a standard or regulation, and creates no new legal obligations.” Nevertheless, OSHA reminds employers of their duty to comply with safety and health standards and regulations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and to provide workplaces that are “free from recognized hazards.”

OSHA’s recommendations vary depending on the risk of occupational exposure. Law practices likely fall in the lower-risk exposure level. Low-risk workforces do not require contact with people known to be or suspected of being infected with COVID-19. Workers in this category have minimum close contact with the public and other coworkers. OSHA recommends implementing administrative controls, such as monitoring public health recommendations and collaborating with employees to designate effective means of communication for COVID-19 related information. OSHA does not recommend engineering controls or PPE for this category.

OSHA recommends that these employers:

  • Develop and implement an infectious disease preparedness and response plan
  • Prepare to implement basic infection prevention measures
  • Develop policies and procedures to prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate
  • Develop, implement and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protections
  • Implement workplace controls.

Utilizing OSHA’s recommendations set forth above, law firm leaders should develop comprehensive plans for which law firms can open in a safe and secure environment for lawyers, staff and clients. The plans should account for multiple phases while returning to regular operations.

Some elements of infection prevention measures will be unique to the particular firm, but many elements can be adopted in most practices. In accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, management committees should continue to focus on social distancing measures by encouraging lawyers and staff to work from home when not needed in the office. Office reopenings should be gradual and phased to facilitate social distancing. Lawyers should consider establishing staggered, in-office work schedules to allow lower numbers of employees in the office.

Management should set up protocols for employees to follow if they have any symptoms of exposure to the novel coronavirus, or if members of their households or other close contacts have symptoms. Employees should be asked to self-monitor for symptoms and report those to a designated person in the office. Firms should consider offering no-touch thermometers for use in the office.

“Vulnerable” individuals, as defined by the CDC, should not be required to return to in-person work. The key words for law firm management will be flexibility and accommodation for attorneys and staff with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to complications of COVID-19. Employees with vulnerable family members also may need to return at a later date. Similarly, firms should also support employees with child or elder care responsibilities that prevent them from returning to the office.

Additionally, workspaces may need to be reconfigured to maintain social distance. Attorneys should keep their office doors closed, and no one should be permitted to enter others’ offices. The number of people permitted in meetings should be limited, and use of common spaces should be restricted. Basic hospitality items, such as common coffee makers, should be removed temporarily, and commonly served food should not be offered. Law practices should continue travel restrictions and encourage all meetings, including depositions and mediations, to be held by video or phone conference. Visitors to the office should be restricted, and all persons entering the office should sign in and give contact information in case public health officials later require contract tracing.

Firm management should identify regularly touched surfaces and establish a protocol for frequent cleaning. Other protections to consider include providing reception and staff desks with acrylic protective barriers, offering face masks and gloves for voluntary use, and stocking and requiring use of disinfectants and hand sanitizer.

Lawyers and law firms should continue to regularly monitor local health conditions. The return-to-work plan should be a living document that is updated regularly to reflect those conditions and public health agency guidance. Only when the firm has no confirmed cases of COVID-19 and health conditions in the community continue to improve, should law firm leaders progress to the next phase of the operating plan. If conditions worsen, law firms should be prepared to revert to more restrictive operating procedures.

Before COVID-19, attorneys would signal the end of friendly discussions with a heated sign-off indicating litigation is coming. Now, in all earnestness, we hope to soon say to all of our brothers and sisters in law: “See you in court!”

Anne E. Baggott is a director and Brandi S. Spates is an associate with Dysart Taylor Cotter McMonigle & Montemore.

Coronavirus crisis

This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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