An Interview with Human Resources Expert Claudia St. John

St John HeadshotClaudia St. John is the founder and president of Affinity HR Group Inc., a national human resources and management consulting firm specializing in hiring, recruiting, HR compliance and employee engagement. Affinity HR Group is the endorsed HR partner and resource for several national trade associations and their member companies.

As a consultant and frequent speaker, Ms. St. John has presented hundreds of educational sessions and workshops on such topics as how to recruit, common management mistakes, employee engagement and multi-generational workplace challenges. She also is the author of the bestselling book, “Transforming Teams – Tips for Improving Collaboration and Building Trust.” Her weekly “HR Minute” emails and monthly articles are followed by thousands of business leaders nationwide.

The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted everyone. Clearly, small-business owners face the added pressure of not only ensuring the safety and well-being of themselves and their families, but also that of their employees and their businesses in general. Given this, what are the main challenges laundromat owners are facing from a human resources standpoint?

From a human resources standpoint, the issues are how to maintain a workforce that keeps employees healthy, that protects clients and customers who are on site, and that complies with the laws that are out there. Those are the main buckets.

Within those, there is another huge piece of the puzzle. This situation affects every laundromat differently, based on where it’s located. It also impacts every employee differently, based on whether or not that employee has children, as well as his or her health conditions and if this individual becomes sick. It requires an intensely individualized perspective for each and every employee.

It also requires a different set of tools than most laundromat owners typically have to deploy. They are being required to think through questions and answers they’ve never had to before.

How would you suggest laundry owners address employee concerns and questions about workplace policies and the implementation of preventive measures?

First and foremost, approach employees with a state of care and compassion. No one is happy right now. Those who are coming to work are terrified, because they’re doing so in light of a virus to which they have no immunity. The virus is still out there. It hasn’t gone away. We haven’t fixed that problem. So, the first task is to appreciate that your employees are concerned, afraid and frustrated.

As far as workplace policies, a lot of them are being put together on an ad hoc basis. We’re changing them as we learn more about this virus and as the Centers for Disease Control releases new guidelines about social distancing, disinfecting and so on. For example, two months ago, people were told there was no reason to wear face masks, because it won’t protect you. However, today, you can’t go out in public without a face mask. So, which is it? It’s frustrating for many people to not have that clarity.

Let your employees know that the rules are going to change. And, because they know your business, include them in the decision-making process about how you provide safety measures at your laundromat for distancing, hygiene, cleaning, etc. After all, they may see the issues closer than you do.

How has communicating with employees changed since the crisis arose? How should laundry owners be communicating with their staff members? What are the most effective methods right now?

In-person meetings are probably more challenging now. But you can still have an all-employee meeting in the parking lot. You can pick larger spaces to get together. If you can’t do that, there are always FaceTime, Zoom or Skype opportunities to have conversations.

Body language is critical – for your employees to see you and for you to see them and assess how they’re feeling. You can check in with people just by looking at them. In these days of uncertainty, the most effective means of communication are in person, and then perhaps following up with written procedures.

If you’re communicating a new policy on cleaning or practices, I also would post it around the workplace as a reminder. Additionally, I strongly believe that – in laundromats and other businesses that have the public coming in and out – employees should be wearing personal protective equipment, and that’s something an employer should provide, to keep employees and customers safe.

You’ll find that the more over the top you are about testing for fevers, wearing face masks, and focusing on cleaning and disinfecting, the more your staff will appreciate it. Employees want that, because it means you care about them. Today, it’s the only certainty we have. They don’t know that every new policy or practice will work, but they know that their employer is trying. That goes a long way.

Laundry attendants are on the front lines of this pandemic, providing an essential service during these unprecedented times. How important is it for owners today to show empathy and to really listen to their employees? And, what are some ways laundromat operators can best offer that empathy, as well as a sense of caring toward their staff members?

It’s about listening to their concerns and showing that you are maintaining a healthy work environment. For example, my sister is a cashier at Lowe’s. Although she’s grateful to be working, she doesn’t have much control over her schedule. Her store recently had a half-price sale on mulch, so she had 1,000 people come through her register alone in just a few hours. That doesn’t show empathy. That doesn’t show caring for the experience of those employees.

It’s about providing protective equipment, providing information, checking in and seeing how people are doing through one-on-one communication. In addition, send out notices to let staff know what you’re doing, whether it’s limiting the number of people in the laundromat or providing hand-sanitization stations throughout the store. This way, employees can see you’re keeping track of them and caring for them.

Have empathy for what your attendants and their families are going through. These days, business owners are hearing from their employees, “I just don’t want to come to work,” or, “I’m sick.” Some owners might get mad and think these individuals are trying to get some time off or game the system. However, now is the time for you, as an owner, to say: “I hope you feel better soon. Let me know when you feel better, and don’t come in until you feel better.”

What are some of the do’s and don’ts of dealing with employees who may be feeling ill or may be exhibiting signs of coronavirus?

I strongly recommend that every laundry owner go to the CDC website, as well as investigating all employer resources available. The first thing an employer should do is know all of the symptoms for coronavirus, because they’ve changed. It used to be difficulty breathing, fever, cough and so on. However, now it includes upset stomach, loss of smell, perhaps strange marking on the hands or feet, etc. There are all of these bizarre new symptoms. The symptoms seem to change, and they’re different for different segments of the population. So, let all of your employees know what all of the symptoms are. And, if they have any of them, instruct these attendants to not come to work until the symptoms abate.

The CDC provides guidelines on all of this. Employees should not come back to work until they are 72 hours fever-free, without a fever reducer – and at least seven days from the onset of symptoms, according to the CDC.

If someone has tested positive for coronavirus, he or she also must have two consecutive negative tests before returning. All of these procedures are spelled out in the CDC guidelines. It’s certainly best practice to do what the CDC is recommending.

Keeping HIPAA laws and health information privacy in mind, what can employers ask employees or job candidates concerning the virus and their health? By contrast, what cannot be discussed or expected?

According to CDC and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, you may ask employees if they are exhibiting or have had any of the symptoms of coronavirus. You also can ask if they have been sick, and you can ask that they visit a doctor. In addition, you can take their temperature.

You cannot require that they take a coronavirus test, unless they have tested positive previously.

On the issue of HIPAA and privacy, if you have an employee who contracts the coronavirus, you need to maintain the confidentiality of that person’s medical condition. You can notify staff that there has been an exposure, but you need to be careful about saying who that employee is. That would be considered a potential HIPAA violation.

Likewise, let’s assume you have employee who has an underlying medical condition that might put him or her at added risk to contract the coronavirus, such as an autoimmune disease. Of course, you should try to make a special workplace accommodation for that employee, such a paid PTO or a more flexibility schedule. However, you can’t discuss this with your other staffers. You must protect that privacy.

What types of mental health assistance programs would you suggest store owners offer their employees who may be suffering from depression or other issues, due to the pandemic?

Everyone has his or her own mental “stuff,” and right now there’s an added universal kind of uncertainty. At the moment, none of the institutions we rely on are doing what we need them to do. We can’t plan, because we don’t know. It’s the greatest level of uncertainty we, as a people, have collectively had to face. I think it’s wise to acknowledge that it’s going to take a toll on people’s mental health.

I would strongly encourage laundry owners to go to a health insurance broker to find out what types of employee assistance programs exist in their areas. There are a lot of mental health benefits being offered, including substance abuse assistance and those types of services. After all, when you socially isolate those who may already have addictions, that’s not a recipe for success.

Look into employee assistance programs, talk to those at your nearby medical facilities, visit your local chamber of commerce – and find out what mental-health-related employee assistance programs are available.

Employer leadership has never been more important. What are the keys to leading employees during times of crisis?

As the owner of your business, all eyes are on you. What you do and how you do it are critical to being able to provide strong leadership. For example, if you’re telling your attendants to socially distance and yet you’re throwing parties at your house every weekend, that’s not a good look. If you’re telling staffers to maintain appropriate hygiene and yet you refuse to wear protective equipment or to follow the guidelines you’ve laid out for your employees, again that’s not good. You need to be walking the walk, as well as talking the talk.

Likewise, showing empathy and care, along with reassuring your employees, will go a long way. When reaching out to your staff, consider using this type of tone: “Yes, this is crazy. We all know it’s crazy. But we’re going to get through this. This is a brief moment in time. We will get beyond it – all of us. And we’ll get beyond it together.” That’s being empathetic and reassuring. It’s letting your employees know you’ll be there for them.

So, lead by example and be empathetic.

Do you think COVID-19 has forever altered the HR landscape for small-business owners? If so, in what ways?

My organization conducts regular webinars. And, when COVID-19 first hit, we had 2,300 people on a webinar. I think small businesses now further appreciate and understand the need for human resources, as well as the need for these types of policies and procedures on which to rely.

On the flip side, we, as HR professionals, have been telling business owners lately that there’s no point in developing a policy for this pandemic because it’s forever changing. You’ve just got to wing it. We definitely need to have HR guidance, but at the same time, this is rubber bands and bubble gum right now – we’re just trying to “MacGyver” our way through this situation.

It’s this weird dichotomy. I get asked what all of this means for the future, but I can barely think past my first cup of coffee in the morning. We’re literally taking it day by day, but doing so with optimism.

I believe one aspect that will change are our social safety nets – sick leave, parental leave and so on. We’re suffering now because we don’t have any of the social safety netting established that used to be offered to employers, especially smaller employers. Those benefits aren’t being offered.

It shows how badly we need these institutions, such as a strong unemployment safety net – with health care, sick leave and programs that protect not only the individual workers, but also the organizations and the system as a whole. I think we’re going to take a closer look at this topic, because there currently are gaps and failures that are making a bad situation worse.

With regard to HR, is there a silver lining to come out of this experience of the last few months?

I think we’re all going to appreciate life a little bit better when we get past this situation. I think we’ll appreciate the ability to come together to work and to play – understanding that we’re all in the same boat. I think it has increased our empathy for one another.

Another silver lining is the fact that people are beginning to appreciate the role of HR and the role of solid policies and procedures that benefit the workforce. We’re looking at the workforce differently, in terms of where we work and what we do.

I also think we’re going to appreciate our essential employees much more – the laundromat attendants and those in other sectors of the economy that perhaps we didn’t appreciate as much as we do now. These people are putting themselves and their families in harm’s way so that we can do the things we need to do as a society.

I went to the grocery store the other day, and the person in front of me thanked the cashier for her service. That’s a good thing. That’s a positive step.

What’s the best advice you can give laundromat owners for keeping their employees positive, healthy and engaged in the age of COVID-19?

Show that you care about every one of your employees. Check in with all of your staff members. Let them know how proud you are that they are “essential,” and how proud you are that your business can continue to provide an essential service during these times.

Show your appreciation, and treat your employees with care and respect. Listen to their concerns and let them know what’s going on with your business. We are all living in a moment of uncertainty. Literally, none of us knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. Stay in close contact with your employees – with care and compassion. You don’t have control over anything else, so that’s the best place to start.

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