Georgia’s Businesses Prepare for the New Normal
Home to numerous Fortune 500 companies, a thriving arts and entertainment industry, the world’s busiest airport, and the Master’s Golf Tournament, Georgia is a unique blend of sophisticated business and southern traditions. Like most regions in the world, however, the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has upended Georgia’s identity. The “new norm” is now developing.
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting Georgia’s previously solid economy. Limits on traveling and gathering have adversely impacted transportation, tourism and hospitality industries, causing restaurants to close and the cancellation of large events like the NCAA annual basketball tournament with its finals in Atlanta. At the time of publication, the resulting economic impact on Georgia is unknown, but unemployment is expected to rise significantly.
President Trump has declared Georgia a major disaster area, and Governor Kemp has declared a statewide public health emergency, due to the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis. In response to COVID-19, Georgia created a 66-member task force to examine the State’s preparedness and the impact on the economic and housing implications. While the federal declaration will provide some economic stimulus and support for businesses, particularly loans for small businesses, the State’s resources largely relate to providing support in protecting life and property arising from the crisis.
Before COVID-19, Georgia’s legal developments focused on traditional business-based issues.
The Marijuana Effect
As of publication, Georgia along with 33 other states have laws in place legalizing the use of marijuana in some capacity. Last year, the State legislature approved a bill allowing production and sale of medical marijuana in Georgia. Although Georgia affords employees with protections for marijuana use for medicinal reasons, the drug remains illegal as a matter of federal law. This legal conflict, coupled with increased marijuana use, will create headaches for employers. Employers should be prepared to create policies complying with federal, state and local laws that not only address how to maintain a safe workplace where employees may be impaired from medicinal marijuana, but also how to handle positive drug tests from permissive use. Additionally, employers should be prepared to respond to challenges to employer-based actions arising from marijuana use (e.g., denial of employment for an applicant or termination of an employee).
LGBTQ Title VII Discrimination Challenges
The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted petitions for writ of certiorari for three cases concerning whether federal anti-discrimination law protections should be extended to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. One case comes from an Atlanta suburb. Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia could help shape an employer’s response to allegations of workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Smoking Ban in Atlanta
Effective January 2, 2020, Atlanta’s new smoke-free ordinance bans smoking or vaping in bars, restaurants, hotels, music venues, convention centers, the airport and places of employment. The breadth of the ordinance could face a legal challenge from individuals authorized to use medicinal marijuana who rely on vaping for treatment. The practical impact of the ban could undermine productivity for the shrinking population of the workforce who still smokes.
Novel Issues from the Coronavirus
The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a big health crisis, it is also a big business crisis. Allowing businesses to remain open during a pandemic could create lawsuits against employers whose workforce contracts the virus. Working from home, in instances, creates inefficiencies and/or roadblocks that affect a business’s ability to operate. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will not conduct inspections of employees’ home offices, injuries and illnesses of employees while working at home will be considered work-related if the injury or illness is related to work an employee is performing at home. The unprecedented increase in remote workers can create liability for employers whose workforce had to quickly transition to working from home during the pandemic. Additionally, the need to know whether a sick employee’s cold-like symptoms require a quarantine to protect against a spread of the infection raises privacy considerations. Shelter-in-place orders create questions about whether a business is essential under vague state declarations. And new legislation—like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act—bolsters employee protections against adverse actions from small business employers, creating a Paid Leave structure and expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act. But, it is not just small businesses that are impacted. A major department store recently announced that it was furloughing most of its workforce—over 100,000 employees—because of the financial impact arising from closing its stores to protect against the spread of the virus. The business impact from COVID-19 will be far reaching.
A longtime conservative stronghold, Georgia is becoming a battleground state. The recent gubernatorial election between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams was the closest in five decades. Observers from around the country are watching to see what happens with the general election in November.
While the “new norm” from the novel coronavirus has not yet emerged, Georgia’s strong commercial presence with its diverse array of businesses could position the State to emerge as a leader.