Community Conversation tackles treatment of vulnerable employees during Covid-19

Employees aged 60 plus and those with underlying conditions require special attention in the workplace. 

The CHRO Community Conversations, which are sponsored by Workday, have proven to be a great platform to ask each other questions, exchange ideas, blow off steam and compare notes of what it's like to be in charge of the people agenda of your organisation during such crazy times. This week, the topic was around the difficult decisions that HR leaders need to make to protect their most vulnerable employees.

According to Werksmans Attorneys, “A vulnerable employee is defined as an employee with known or disclosed health issues or comorbidities or any other condition that may place the employee at a higher risk of complications or death than other employees if infected with Covid-19 or employees above the age of 60 years who are at a higher risk of complications or death if infected.” 

Attendees were asked how they were adapting their early pension, leave, retrenchment, office space and other policies to accommodate employees that were either above the age of 60 or had pre-existing conditions that made them vulnerable to catching a fatal case of Covid-19. 

Candice Watson, group human capital executive at AECI, kicked off the conversation by sharing some insights about the dilemmas and solutions they have found in plotting a way forward in engaging with vulnerable employees. 

She said they established a cross-functional Covid-19 task team for compiling the organisation’s response plan, not only for South Africa but for the 22 countries in which they operate across the world. The team was led by Candice herself and the group executive, with the chief executive taking the lead.

"We benefited from the collective functional wisdom by including virologists, the occupational health doctor, seasoned executives in the field of safety, health and risk, and the company secretary who provided the necessary insight from a legal perspective. The team also included someone with links to the medical aid society as well as the stakeholder engagement executive who deals quite closely with the government around its response to the crisis," said Candice, adding that the team evaluated the government's response in every country they operated in and planned their strategy accordingly.

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"We sought to ascertain vulnerable employees and group them into categories or either vulnerable or extremely vulnerable employees. The first group referred to those employees were at a high-risk of not recovering from the virus if they contracted it, the second are those that had comorbidities (that is, pre-existing conditions) that further intensified that risk,” she said. 

Keeping medical records confidential

By Monday 8 June, Candice said they had 663 people who had disclosed that they were vulnerable, without necessarily giving the company details about their medical history.

"That disclosure was just to give us permission to access their medical records. You need to understand the medical demographic of your workforce, which in and of itself is a difficult endeavour because of the confidentiality around medical information." 

Similarly, Lafarge South Africa HR director Tshidi Dabula said their staff had been encouraged to voluntarily disclose their risk status before lockdown. Depending on the outcome, they encouraged employees to be referred for risk assessment. 

“From there we adjusted the environment to allow as many staff to work from home where possible. High-risk staff were encouraged to take sick leave and for those at the highest risk, we have started a temporary to permanent disability process. Full process needs to be followed before retrenchments can be considered.”

At Belgotex, employees had to undergo return-to-work inductions and medical tests by our company doctor before being allowed back to the workplace.

“Employee health or the medical demographic of our staff is unchartered territory, there are often many grey areas. It was shocking to see the numbers of staff with diagnosed but uncontrolled conditions such as Type 2 diabetes. There are staff who are high risk due to conditions out of their control for which decisions still need to be taken about when and how we incorporate them back into the workplace," said Belogtex executive HR director Jade Peter.

Hesto Harnesses HR director Sinqobile Khuluse said they had asked vulnerable employees who were already collecting medication through the company’s occupational healthcare centre how best they could help them navigate their return to work process and assisted with testing of chronic conditions and counselling of these employees. 

“We've had to move staff around and strongly encourage existing multi-skilling. Pregnant employees were also a big concern. We are trying our best to ensure our staff are safe, both vulnerable as well as the less vulnerable,” said Khuluse.

Tsebo Group HR director Elanie Kruger said they faced a different challenge because, while most of their employees were in the essential services space, they were also “working at our clients’ premises so we rely on our clients to follow the regulations and ensure their safety. Although we have workplace plans of our own, we engage regularly with our clients to ensure that they are compliant.” 

From a head office perspective, Elanie said the company had already had many iterations of the strategy for adapting to the new reality because it was never closed and did not really have time off to prepare for the lockdown.