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President’s Statement Regarding COVID-19

As the Coronavirus and resulting COVID-19 disease has spread closer to Lynchburg, there has been a dizzying array of governmental advisories, guidelines and orders. Many of our employees are confused. Judging by recent media reports, while the university was making changes and informing students, some employees did not receive an accurate and consistent message about workplace safety, telework authorizations, and leave policies. This message shares how Liberty University is responding to the spread of the COVID-19 Virus, specifically focused on workplace issues, and includes action options for employees. Supervisors should immediately share it with any employees who do not have a workplace computer.

Leave and Work from Home

While we are trying to keep as many people at Liberty employed as possible under a very different working environment, we understand workload adjustments may result in some people being unable to continue to work as usual. Leave has been approved for those employees who request it from Human Resources because they have reached 65 years of age or have a documented underlying medical condition that puts them at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19. Some high-risk employees can perform their work from home and do not need to take leave. Managers, deans, and executives have been authorized to consider which employees have work that is both quantifiable and trackable, and can also be fully performed at home. Those employees may be temporarily released to work from home (telework). Employees whose work can be fully accomplished from home but is not trackable may be released to temporarily telework at the discretion of management if doing so helps create separation between workspaces. Such at home assignments can be alternated among two or more employees in a team where the team has some essential work that can only be performed in-person in the workplace. Faculty office hours may be handled by telephone at the discretion of the faculty member. Employees whose work is not essential for a short period may be deemed temporarily non-essential and temporarily laid off or reassigned. Employees whose work is essential and must be performed in-person at the workplace will not be released without documentation of a high-risk factor recognized by the CDC. If you want to explore some of these options, please begin discussions with your supervisor and contact Human Resources with any questions or concerns you may still have, especially as they may concern time off. Managers, deans, and executives should keep Human Resources updated on which employees are teleworking and how they are being monitored.

Governor’s Orders

Governor Ralph Northam has announced a number of directives, some of which were issued in Executive Orders and others that were simply advisories. Some of them required changes in how the university operated (such as dining areas limited to carry out), and others prompted changes that were good ideas though not necessarily required because the Orders did not apply to Liberty University.

Two parts of his most recent March 23 Order have raised questions in the minds of many employees. There is a prohibition on public and private gatherings of 10 or more individuals after midnight, March 24.  However, the FAQ issued with that Order clarifies that, “For the purposes of this Order, employment settings are not considered gatherings.” That’s because the Commonwealth recognizes the federal government’s OSHA regulations govern workplace safety, and the Governor’s Order is simply addressing certain types of businesses and K-12 schools that would typically serve members of the general public who enter their properties.

While Liberty University is a nonprofit institution of higher education and not a “business,” the governor’s directions to all businesses that remain open are somewhat similar to what Liberty follows under the federal laws regulating workplace safety. To the extent possible, in our workplace, we are adhering to social distancing recommendations, enhancing sanitation practices on common surfaces, and acting on appropriate workplace guidance from government officials.  But this workplace guidance is more flexible than, for example, a mandatory 10 person limit on any meeting at any time or location under any circumstance. Managers and employees are in good positions to determine the extent that following these guidelines is possible or necessary, and we encourage everyone to work together to that end, especially in the period between now and April 1.

Federal Workplace Safety Guidance

OSHA requires employers to exercise care to furnish a workplace free from hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm and to provide personal protective equipment appropriate to the employees’ tasks. However, not every step to meet these goals is spelled out in regulations. OSHA recently produced guidance to identify various options for meeting the general workplace standards in the face of new challenges of COVID-19.

Some of these options are old hat, such as continuation of longstanding guidelines for people who do cleaning functions and those who can reasonably expect exposure to blood and other body fluids. Others are specific to infectious disease outbreaks and some were further updated on March 21 with new information on enhanced cleaning, social distancing, and response strategies for COVID-19. Taken together, these options include:

  • frequently wash hands
  • avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth
  • sneeze and cough into the inside of your elbow
  • provide tissues, paper towels, disinfecting wipes, sanitizer, soap, and trashcans in the workplace
  • avoid using other employees’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, when possible
  • clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces such as workstations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, doorknobs, and shared business tools and equipment
  • avoiding close contact (6 or less feet) with the sick
  • enhanced cleaning following contact with suspected or confirmed sick persons
  • consider alternate meeting methods and use of open, well-ventilated space for the in-person meetings that must occur
  • avoid meetings and other gatherings of 10 or more until April 1
  • discourage hand shaking and other greetings involving physical contact
  • maintain distances of 6 feet when possible, i.e., in breakrooms
  • consider employing strategies of telework, staggered shifts, increasing physical space between workstations and workers, downsizing operations, delivering services via phone or web, and delivering products through pickup or delivery
  • have employees with fever, cough, and shortness of breath stay home and inform supervisors
  • have employees comply with any requests by public health official to self-quarantine
  • sick employees follow protocols for home isolation before returning to work
  • employees living with sick persons inform their supervisors
  • inform co-workers about potential exposure to confirmed COVID-19 infected persons while respecting privacy, where possible.
    Each of these measures is guidance. Guidance is not mandatory unless it’s the only measure that can be used to prevent likely death or serious physical injury. Different measures can be employed instead and in combination to limit the hazards of death and serious bodily harm on the job. Depending on the individual workplace and workstation, some guidance options may work and some may not. However, they are all worth evaluating for implementation, if they have not already been implemented. Those evaluations are ongoing and can change if the number of confirmed cases appearing in our area changes the risk profile. Conversely, as the risks decrease, the university will begin to return to previous practices regarding workplace distances, cleaning, etc.

Engage in discussions within your individual workspace and with your supervisors to see what is already being done and what else can be done to lower risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Take personal responsibility for what you can do personally. Learn which cleaning and disinfecting tasks our central maintenance staff are handling, which are being done by someone in your department, and which are expected of you personally. And of course, be honest about your health conditions. False reports of COVID-19 infection or test results is grounds for termination.

We appreciate how our administration, faculty, and staff have rallied and helped ensure Liberty University was able to continue to serve our community with the love and strength of Christ and continue its mission of Training Champions for Christ. We pray for God’s continued blessing on our health as we carry out His purpose in our work.

Jerry Falwell