Since mid-March, self-storage facilities across the country have been forced to temporarily close their doors or limit operations due to government orders stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. As states begin to ease restrictions in an effort to rejuvenate their economies, facility operators must grapple with what they need to do to reopen and deal with employees and customers in the new reality. After all, life has changed drastically over the past couple of months.
Comply With Guidelines
First, be aware of health and safety guidelines regarding self-storage employees and customers. For example, Georgia was among the first states to ease restrictions. Its businesses were told to follow COVID-19 workplace guidelines issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Safety and cleanliness should be a top priority. Many businesses that stayed open adopted measures recommended by OSHA to enforce social distancing and increase customer confidence while inside a building. These include marking spaces near office counters for appropriate distancing, using a plexiglass barrier between customers and employees, providing masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and hand sanitizer to employees and even customers, and establishing clear rules for everyone to follow. Changes you may need to enforce include:
- Limiting the number of customers inside the management office at time, perhaps even on the property as a whole
- Disinfecting the office after each customer leaves
- Frequently disinfecting commonly touched surfaces
- Providing hand-sanitizer dispensers around the property
Be up front and transparent about the steps you’re taking and any rules being implemented. Consider putting up additional signage at the facility as well as notices on your website.
What Can Happen If You Don’t Comply
The new emphasis on cleanliness, safety and adherence to guidelines is highlighted in a recent lawsuit filed against Walmart by the family member of an employee who contracted and died from the coronavirus. The lawsuit asserts the company was negligent in keeping the store safe and healthy, failing to:
- Protect its employees
- Implement, promote and enforce social-distancing guidelines
- Cleanse and sanitize the store
- Provide employees with PPE, such as masks, gloves and antibacterial items
Consider educating and training your employees on the most up-to-date risk factors, and make sure they know not to come to work if they’re sick. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said it’s legal for companies to ask employees if they have COVID-19 symptoms. Employers are permitted to take employees’ temperature to determine if they might be infected and ask them to seek medical attention and get tested for the virus if they exhibit signs of infection. It’s important to note, however, that workplace civil-rights protections still apply during the pandemic.
Once you’re comfortable with all the necessary guidelines and how to conform, the next step is to determine if and when your self-storage operation can ramp back up to “normal.” Most operators haven’t been conducting lien sales or charging late fees during the shutdown. Now they’re wondering when they can resume these activities.
We recommend starting from scratch on any delinquency-related timelines. For example, let’s say a tenant hasn’t paid rent for three months. For lien-enforcement purposes, day one of the process shouldn’t begin until applicable orders have been fully lifted. To act otherwise puts your business at risk of legal action and certainly bad publicity.
Our new reality is constantly changing, as are the related rules. Be vigilant with regard to official mandates and be nimble enough to follow any and all guidelines recommended by your state and local governments. During this pandemic, the best self-storage operations may be those that protect the well-being of their employees and customers.
J. Ashley Oblinger is an associate attorney in the Atlanta law firm of Weissmann Zucker Euster Morochnik & Garber, P.C., where he specializes in business and self-storage law, advising operators nationwide on all legal matters, including lease preparation, lien enforcement, tenant issues, tenant-claims defense, and employment policies. To reach him, call 404.760.7434; e-mail email@example.com.