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Q&A: Coronavirus (COVID-19) & Human Resources Considerations

Heather Prendergast, RVT, CVPM, SPHR, Patterson Veterinary University, Las Cruces, New Mexico

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Published Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at 5:58 PM EST

The coronavirus pandemic is raising challenges in all aspects of veterinary practice, including staffing and human resources (HR). We interviewed Heather Prendergast to learn her thoughts on some of the difficult HR questions facing veterinary practices right now. She notes this is a situation that is changing daily, and many HR issues are dependent on state regulations. 

When faced with the need to reduce payroll costs, what are the options?

Layoffs: A permanent elimination of an employee’s duties

  • When an employee is laid off, there is no intention of bringing the employee back to work when business returns to normal
  • Consider employees who have been poor performers, are not coachable, and do not contribute positively to the practice goals and values
  • Laid off employees qualify for unemployment
  • Healthcare transitions to COBRA*

Furlough: A temporary freezing of payroll for those particular employees who are furloughed

  • When business returns to normal, an employee’s previous duties and hours may be reinstated 
  • Furloughed employees may be brought back to work at different times (depending on business needs)
  • Furloughed employees do not work any hours during the furlough period
  • Furloughed employees qualify for unemployment
  • A practice may be able to continue benefits for furloughed employee (especially health insurance), but these benefits vary depending on the practice and the specific health insurance plan

Reduced hours: A reduction of normally scheduled hours by 20% or more

  • Employees with reduced hours can apply for supplemental unemployment insurance offered by the state until their normal schedule resumes
  • Practices may continue regular benefits for employees with reduced hours, but not all practices may be able to do this
  • Options through specific insurance companies may be available for COBRA-eligible employees with reduced hours and lost benefits

In situations where these measures are required, I cannot stress enough how important it is to communicate with the team. This is a time when transparent communication of the whole story is important. In this situation, it is detrimental to try and shield employees from the reality of the situation—these measures are to ensure the survival of the practice.


Have you altered team schedules?

In a situation where payroll costs must be reduced, I recommend reviewing staffing in stages. First, any employees with performance issues who have not been able to be coached successfully should be laid off. Second, employees who are valuable contributors to the team, but not the core team, should be furloughed with the intention of returning to their position when business returns. Finally, the practice should operate with a core team working reduced hours. This can include a receptionist to answer calls, a veterinarian to diagnose and treat patients, and a technician to assist. In this specific COVID-19 situation, consider including a delivery person to deliver medication and food to pet owners. As business improves, first increase the previously reduced hours, then bring back furloughed employees as their specific role is required until all employees are back to their regular schedule. 

If a practice reduces hours, how does that impact hourly employees? What about doctors working on production?

Communication is critical in these situations. Share with the team that you must keep payroll aligned with revenue earned. Ask the team if anyone is willing to give up hours, including doctors. If any doctors volunteer to reduce base or decrease production, or other team members volunteer to reduce hours, mandatory changes may not be necessary. If a practice isn’t able to decrease payroll voluntarily, involuntary measures will be required (ie, reduced hours, furloughs, or lay-offs).

Can practices ask an employee to stay home? Do they have to pay them?

As this specific COVID-19 situation develops, the answer to this question may be mandated by states and vary by state.  At this point, for any employee showing symptoms (eg, fever, dry cough), there is a dual obligation of the practice leadership to protect both the team and the clients by sending that employee home.

  • If available, the employee should use PTO or sick leave in that situation. If there is no PTO or sick leave, the employer historically does not have to pay, but this varies by state. Stay current with daily state and federal mandates released, as these are rapidly changing.
  • If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, they qualify for payout covered by the federal government in the Families First Coronavirus Act.
  • If an employee elects to travel against local government and CDC recommendations and shows no symptoms upon return, from an HR perspective, that employee cannot be required to stay home. They should be given opportunity to fulfill social responsibility and stay home, but may not be sent home involuntarily. 

If a practice is looking for alternative roles for their staff (home delivery of meds and food, for example), what do they need to keep in mind to protect the employee and the practice?

With any role change, but particularly the example of home delivery, it is important to alert Workers’ Compensation to any change in structure of a position.

If the practice elects to offer delivery to client homes, protocols must be established to ensure employees are not going into homes, and instead are leaving items at doors for pet owners to collect.

Some practices have begun to offer pet delivery and pickup service. Establish protocols to transfer pets outdoors, consider wiping down pets with an appropriate disinfectant to eliminate potential fomites, and continue to follow social distancing, hand hygiene, and disinfecting recommendations.

As an employee, what are my options if I don’t agree with how my clinic is handling the situation?

In this situation, there are only two options:

  1. Pursue opportunities to discuss and problem-solve with practice leadership. Bring resources to the leadership team to demonstrate how practices are still bringing in revenue while meeting safety needs of employees and clients, all while still meeting the ultimate goal of treating patients. Present solutions that focus on client and team member safety while still allowing revenue generation.
  2. Leave to look for other employment that supports choices aligned with your comfort level. At this time, there are likely not a lot of alternative positions available, and this might be a challenging choice.
    1. Note: If you leave a practice on your own, you may not qualify for unemployment. If you are laid off from a practice, you do qualify for unemployment. 
*COBRA — Continued healthcare benefits for eligible employees who have been laid off or have lost job-based insurance

For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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