Q: Our small import business has been hit hard by the coronavirus. We’ve had almost no customers all week; they’re scared off because we’re Chinese and import products from China and Korea. People we love live near the virus epicenter and we can’t help them. One of our employees was so upset she stayed home last week. Some of the others worry that she is secretly ill and ask if she could have caught the virus from the boxes of food and other products we unload.
January is normally a big month for us, and now it’s not. What do we do?
A: Right now, your employees understandably feel on edge as what we’re learning about how the novel coronavirus transmits differs from what we first heard in December. They’re grieving what’s happening to relatives and friends back home that they can’t help. They may feel nervous about their jobs, given the drop in customers.
Call an all-hands meeting. When crises happen, owners and managers can help their employees navigate through emotional mine fields by bringing employees together and presenting clear, factual information. Without this meeting, employees are left to worry on their own or to talk about the situation to one another and pass along what often turns out to be misinformation.
You and other employers can proactively arm your employees with information about how you and they can keep the workplace safe. You can get accurate information by calling the State of Alaska Department of Epidemiology at 907-269-8000 or by visiting their regularly updated website. The New York Times article “How Bad Will the Coronavirus Outbreak Get? Here Are 6 Key Factors,” is a well-rounded, comprehensive briefing.
Your customers are understandably nervous as well, particularly as we now know that individuals who don’t obviously show novel coronavirus symptoms can carry the disease.
You’re not the only store facing this type of customer reaction. According to news reports, customers in cities with a connection to Wuhan are staying away from Asian restaurants and grocery stores. Anchorage has that connection; six cargo flights from Wuhan landed at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in January. You can also let them know that Bruce Chandler, chief medical officer at the Anchorage Health Department, reports that there are no current coronavirus cases in Alaska and has said, “there’s absolute zero chance of contracting coronavirus now in Alaska."
Your customers and employees need to know that you’re taking precautions for their safety. You need to insist that any ill employee gets an immediate medical evaluation. Also, if your customers continue to stay away, you may need to get creative. For example, management consultant Scott Stender suggests you call regular customers who haven’t visited lately and offer to deliver them products via Uber.
Next, talk with your employees about avoiding any contagious disease, including the common flu. This includes simple measures such as regularly washing hands and getting flu shots. Also, many employees come to work even when sick, thus infecting others. Dedication and work ethic drives some to show up at work despite illness. Others can’t afford to stay home due to the financial consequences or because they’ve used up their paid time off. As an employer, do you reward employees who “tough it out” or make it hard for genuinely ill employees to take unpaid leave?
If so, consider making a change. Ask your employees to remain home if they’re sick so they don’t infect others. Given novel coronavirus concerns, an obviously sick employee might permanently scare off coworkers or customers. As an employer, you can require that a sick employee who arrives at work leaves, as long as you don’t discriminate based on an employee’s protected category such as their race.
What if one of your employees so fears working in your store or another workplace that he or she stays home? For example, those in direct contact with the public, particularly the traveling public such as airline or airport personnel, could come into close proximity with a possibly infected individual. Employees with compromised immune systems or other medical issues may be entitled to their employer accommodating a good faith fear of exposure.
Finally, this crisis may continue for some time before things get better. If you lease space and worry you won’t be able to make rent or pay other bills, contact your landlord and other vendors and explain the situation, so that you can work out a graduated payment plan and thus weather this crisis.