March 17, 2020
The spread of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, has triggered numerous concerns in the workplace, including issues relating to health and safety, leaves of absence, privacy, discrimination and travel. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published a steady stream of information to help employers and businesses navigate through these issues including the “Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers” at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-NCOV/community/guidance-business-response.html. While there is a wealth of information being circulated and updated by the hour, it is not always easy to translate this information into an appropriate policy or practice in the workplace.
Many employers have already taken proactive steps to communicate with their employees regarding COVID-19 and good health practices in the workplace. If you have not already done so, here are the recommended measures that should be undertaken as soon as possible.
First and foremost, an employer needs to assure its employees that it is actively monitoring the fast-moving developments of COVID-19 and will do whatever is necessary to protect its employees. Providing hyperlinks to information published by the CDC will give employees the most up-to-date information regarding the spread of the virus, risk factors and other information that addresses public health concerns. Updates are available on the CDC’s web page at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus.
What should an employee be required to report?
- Advise employees to bring any and all concerns to a designated contact person who will serve as a central resource on matters relating to COVID-19. Multiple persons may need to be identified depending on the size of your business. These individuals need to be available and prepared to answer questions and receive information from employees.
- Instruct employees to contact the central resource:
- If they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, including any persons living in their home;
- If they are experiencing flu symptoms, specifically respiratory illness, fever (100.4° F or above) without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g., cough suppressants);
- If they have recently returned from a “high risk” area or plan to travel to such areas.
- Advise that employees who are exposed to COVID-19 will not be allowed at work and will be subject to quarantine according to CDC guidelines. They will also undergo questioning and a risk assessment before returning to work. Employees should be told that they will be expected to respond to questions regarding potential exposure, symptoms and their business or personal travel plans. CDC guidance regarding the risk assessment can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-NCOV/php/risk-assessment.html.
- Inform employees that older adults and individuals who have severe underlying chronic medical conditions (like heart or lung disease or diabetes) may have a higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19. The employer encourages employees to report any concerns so that additional preventative measures can be considered.
- Advise employees that they need to make sure the employer has current contact information on file (addresses and phone numbers) in the event developments require the employer to make changes to office hours or operations.
What should an employer communicate to its workforce and what actions should be taken to encourage good health practices?
- Employees need to be instructed to stay home if they are sick. The CDC recommends that employees with symptoms, including symptoms of acute respiratory illness, should stay home and not come to work until symptoms have resolved for at least 24 hours, including fever (100.4° F or above) without the use of fever-reducing medication. Managers need to back up this message to ensure that employees are sent home when symptoms are observed.
- Employees should be advised regarding proper hygiene in the workplace to avoid the spread of disease including proper hand-washing techniques. Employees should be instructed to wash their hands regularly and before eating. Counting for 20 seconds while washing hands is a good practice to follow. Employees should be encouraged to carry with them and utilize a hand cleaner. Employees should be advised to keep their hands away from their mouth, nose and eyes because this is a way people contract the virus.
- Reaffirm this message by placing signs throughout the workplace encouraging employees to stay home from work when sick, instructing regarding proper coughing and sneezing etiquette, good hygiene and other health practices. The CDC has published various handouts and posters for employers addressing these topics at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-NCOV/communication/factsheets.html.
- Provide adequate soap, water and hand-sanitizer stations (with at least 60% alcohol) and supplies in easily accessible areas throughout the workplace, including public areas, break areas, near elevators, entrances and exits, in conference rooms, and other areas where people gather.
- Perform routine cleaning including all surfaces frequently touched by workers such as workstations, countertops and doorknobs. Have disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, keyboards, devices, and desks) can be wiped down by employees throughout the workday.
- When in public areas, including public transportation areas, common sense dictates that you should keep a reasonable distance from others. As a general rule, the CDC recommends that you should keep approximately 6 feet of space between yourself and others in public areas to avoid transmission. While traveling, individuals should wash and clean their hands on a frequent basis and carry disinfectant wipes or hand cleaners.
- Disclose that visitor access may be limited until further notice. Visitors should not be allowed to come to the premises if they display symptoms.
- Advise employees that non-essential travel will be limited.
- It is not a good idea for an employer to invest in masks which are difficult to locate currently and cannot be reused. Moreover, without proper training, they may not be properly fitted and may be ineffective if you do not follow proper practices (no facial hair, must have clean hands when placed or removed).
In addition to the above questions, concerned employers are grappling with numerous other questions in the workplace, including the following:
HANDLING EMPLOYEE ABSENCES AND ILLNESS
- What can an employer do if an employee is showing signs and symptoms of illness?
- How should an employee’s absences or leave be treated under an employer’s existing policies, including paid leave?
- Can I require an employee to have their temperature taken?
- What should be done if an employee is reluctant or refuses to come to work based on concerns relating to COVID- 19?
EMPLOYEE PRIVACY ISSUES
- What questions can I ask an employee regarding potential exposure?
- What can an employer advise coworkers if an employee is subject to a mandatory or voluntary quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19?
- What can I advise coworkers if an employee has COVID-19?
- What are the current travel restrictions concerning high-risk countries and areas?
- What if an employee plans to travel to an area that is subject to a CDC warning?
EMPLOYER TEMPORARY CLOSURES AND EMPLOYEE FURLOUGHS
- Are unemployment benefits available to employees?
- Are employees entitled to use paid leave benefits?
WAGE & HOUR AND WORKERS COMPENSATION
- Are employees entitled to be compensated for time off work due to COVID-19 related illness or quarantine
- What are an employer’s workers compensation obligations if an employee contracts COVID-19?
Please reach out to our Labor & Employment members of the McGrath North COVID-19 Response Team for additional information and guidance.
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