Law firms in France are in full coronavirus prevention mode, updating and rehearsing contingency plans to protect staff and their business, and labor lawyers said they are advising clients to do the same — now — before a crisis is declared.
As the number of cases in northern Italy continues to rise, French health authorities have stepped up preventive measures to protect the public against the further spread of COVID-19, as the virus is called. The government has also announced expanded salary support for workers who need to be sent home on quarantine, a move it hopes will encourage employers and workers not to push their limits and put others at risk.
But with the number of confirmed cases in France inching up but still relatively low, the government has not yet declared a state of health crisis or epidemic, a move that would trigger more drastic measures such as the closure of public transportation and cancellation of public events. As of midweek, two fixtures on the February calendar — the Carnaval of Nice and Paris Fashion Week — were still on.
“What we are telling our clients is, you should anticipate — but not too far ahead,” Emmanuelle Rivez-Domont, a labor partner at Jones Day in Paris, told Law.com International. “Don’t run unnecessary risks, and don’t wait to put preventive measures in place. But don’t make hasty decisions that could expose you to problems on other fronts.”
“Until there is a public declaration of some sort, the best advice to give any clients is to communicate well with the public and your employees, and institute good preventive and hygiene practices,” said Ariane Sic Sic, a solo practitioner whose clients include the American Center for Art and Culture in Paris.
Law firms in France are already practicing what they preach, lawyers said. They are taking a proactive stance that is based on lessons learned, and protocols established, during past crises, including the flu pandemics in 2007 and 2009 and the most recent transit strikes.
French labor law is specific and strict on the obligation of companies to “take all necessary measures to guarantee the safety and protect the physical and mental health” of their workers, according to the Code du Travail.
French law also enshrines the notion of protecting the health of the economy, which in this context means requiring companies to plan ahead for whether and how they can operate under extreme conditions such as epidemics or natural disasters.
For law firms and other similar businesses whose assets go home every night, a key part of any business continuity plan, known here as a PCA, or “plan de continuité d’activité,” is allowing for remote working, so that employees do not have to commute to the office during a crisis.
Although French employment contracts often specify where work will be performed, the law does allow for flexibility “to take account of employee safety,” said Laura Jousselin, of counsel in Paris to Fromont-Briens, a leading French labor law firm.
Rivez-Domont added that advance planning for flexibility was particularly important in France, where labor law is based on the principle of consultation between employers and employees. “Exceptions are possible, but any solution needs to be worked out, and that can take some time,” she said.
In France as elsewhere, law firms operating out of multiple offices are already well-versed in the art of working remotely, but some protocols might need refreshing to prepare for telecommuting under pressure, lawyers said.
“We were just looking at our PCA, and we realized that while the lawyers had the material they needed to work from home — firm laptops, firm mobile phones, secure connections — not all of the assistants did,” Jousselin said. “So we are rectifying that now.”
Some law firms are already adjusting their work routines at the margin in a kind of dress rehearsal of what they will need to do for real if an epidemic is declared.
“One of the first things to look at is whether you can reduce the number of people in one place at one time,” says Bénédicte Querenet-Hahn, a labor partner in Paris at the French-German firm GG-V Avocats-Rechtsanwälte. “So firms are starting to schedule group meetings at different times of the day or on different days, to minimize the number of people who have to come in to work at any given time.”
Business trips are also going under a microscope. “I have two colleagues who are supposed to go to Frankfurt soon, and I am looking at that trip and wondering if it is really necessary for them to travel now,” Querenet-Hahn said.