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Safely Reopening Your Business in Wisconsin: Minimize Your Liability

As restrictions are lifted and businesses are allowed to reopen, company owners and managers must find ways to do so in a safe manner. Since COVID-19 is still circulating within our communities, it is up to everyone to take precautions to reduce the risk of spread. Businesses are particularly vulnerable because they must provide a safe environment for their employees and customers alike. Business owners are in a challenging position because they need to reopen to protect their income and provide jobs for workers, yet they need to do so in a way that will be safe and reduce their own liability.

Take Steps to Protect Employees and Customers

The “Safer at Home” order was deemed unlawful and has ended, which means that all businesses, including those that are non-essential, are allowed to open. However, that does not mean you should do so without implementing a safety plan. Business owners could face potential liability if employees or customers contract coronavirus as a result of their negligence. You must take appropriate steps to protect people from illness on your property. Some businesses will have to be more creative than others to re-think the way they do business during the pandemic.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation provide reopen guidelines for various types of businesses and industries. This information is critical when creating a reopening plan for your own business.

Some of the steps you may need to take include:

  • Temperature checks for employees
  • Requiring face masks for employees and customers
  • Installing plexiglass barriers at cashier stands
  • Providing disposable menus and other items
  • Keep employees 6 feet away from each other (social distancing)Sanitizing tables, counters, and workspacesLimiting the number of people allowed in the space
  • Providing spacing guidelines for customers (social distancing)
  • Requiring information from customers where contact tracing may be necessary
  • Have a plan in place in case an employee contracts coronavirus
  • Regular deep cleaning of spaces

Wisconsin Laws that Apply to Businesses

Businesses have a duty to provide a safe environment for both employees and customers. There are several laws and requirements that businesses must follow in order to protect themselves against potential liability.

Workers’ Compensation

Most Wisconsin businesses are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance for their employees. It is important to note that if an employee can prove that they contracted COVID-19 while performing their work duties, their illness is covered by workers’ compensation insurance. You can find more details at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development website.

Definition of Negligence

According to Wisconsin law, a person may be negligent if he “acts affirmatively or fails to act in a way that a reasonable person would recognize as causing an unreasonable risk of injury.” In the case of COVID-19, the business owner or manager could be held responsible if he did not take adequate steps to prevent infection spread. While it may be difficult for a person to prove where they contracted the virus, it is in the best interest of business owners to take appropriate steps to prevent virus spread so as not to get involved in litigation.

Wisconsin Safe Place Statute

Wisconsin has a statute in place (section 101.11) that requires employers to furnish employment that is safe for workers. Employers have a specific obligation to adopt reasonable measures and processes that are necessary to protect the life, health, and safety of employees. The statute has been in place before COVID-19; however, it certainly applies directly to the possible transmission of the virus.

Some types of businesses and companies have a stronger duty to provide safe environments for their workers. For instance, hospitals and long-term care facilities are places that specifically have the potential exposure to all types of illnesses, including COVID-19. They are held to higher standards because they are professional organizations with experience and training that is greater than the general public.

Possible liability due to COVID-19 is a concern for most businesses. It is critical that you follow the rules and guidelines in place that will make your company safer for employees and customers. Contact Moen Sheehan Meyer, Ltd. for more information and legal guidance.

Published July 23, 2020
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