Coronavirus, formally COVID-19, is the topic of the moment, nationwide. Whenever a novel virus or illness surfaces, anxiety among employees in the workplace is bound to increase, as was experienced when H1N1, Zika, and MERS dominated the headlines. Most U.S. employers have dealt with similar concerns before but may not be certain on what steps to take right now.
Here are some steps that employers can begin to take in their workplaces, and HR related issues to consider:
Regarding the coronavirus, employers should diligently monitor updates issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization
- For updates on the virus and advice for the public: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/ and https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
- For business specific guidance: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html
Reinforce proper respiratory etiquette and hygiene etiquette in the workplace.
- Stay six feet away from people who are coughing or sneezing.
- Place posters such as the following in common areas in the workplace:
- Slow the Spread of Germs: https://www.cdc.gov/nonpharmaceutical-interventions/pdf/slow-spread-germs-item1.pdf
- Do Not Spread Germs: https://www.cdc.gov/nonpharmaceutical-interventions/pdf/dont-spread-germs-work-item3.pdf
- Handwashing: https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/posters.html
- Perform regular environmental cleaning and make disinfecting wipes and alcohol-based liquid hand sanitizers available to employees in the workplace.
Consider social distancing policies, particularly if the current situation worsens.
- Consider allowing employees to telecommute, especially if they are not feeling well or if credible concerns about using mass transit arise.
- Weigh the necessity of in-person conferences, especially those that require travel.
Business and personal travel
- Limit business travel to areas of outbreak
- Employees who are traveling on business or on temporary assignment in an outbreak area should notify their supervisor and promptly connect with a healthcare provider.
- Personal travel considerations
- Employees who are traveling personally will need to comply with government travel bans and CDC directives.
- Check the CDC’s travel advisories here: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel
- Engage clients should speak to their HR Consultant contact before regulating any off-duty conduct such as personal travel. Many states prohibit employers from discharging employees for lawful off-duty conduct. Additionally, the guidance is unclear on whether taking action based on potential health conditions is discriminatory.
What if an employee is ill?
- Encourage employees to stay home if they are sick, regardless of their underlying illness. Remember, many of the COVID-19 symptoms mirror symptoms of influenza and the common cold.
- Remind employees of the sick time available to them either by law or by company policies.
- Employers who are not covered by a state law and do not have a policy should provide unpaid time off.
- Allow employees to work remotely
What if an employee comes to work sick?
- If you have a reasonable belief of COVID-19 or an infectious disease, then the employee can be sent home. Be mindful that in some states like New York, employers may be required to pay the employee for a portion of the day regardless of how many hours they work.
- In most situations where there is a reasonable belief of COVID-19, the employer can require a “fitness for duty note” before allowing the person to return to the workplace. Narrowly tailoring this fitness for duty note so that it is limited to COVID-19 is recommended.
- If the CDC or state health agency notifies the employer that an employee has COVID-19 or needs to be quarantined, provide the employee with the time off needed. Whether it is paid time off will depend on your policy and the local law. If the person is performing work during this period, they will need to be paid in accordance with the law.
- In some situations, Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) paperwork may need to be sent if the employer is covered by the law. In situations of hospitalization and/or missing work for more than a few days, it is recommended that paperwork is sent.
Caring for Family Members
- Remember that many local and state earned sick time laws include provisions that the time may be used to: care for a family member who is ill or in need of diagnosis; for public health emergencies; and school childcare provider closings by order of a public official. In addition, FMLA might be triggered.
- As always, employers must be mindful of maintaining confidentiality regarding employee illnesses and/or disabilities.
- Employers, including their management staff, must be sure not to discriminate against individuals due to their (actual or perceived) race, national origin or disability.
Wage and Hour
- Employers must comply with wage and hour law. If the employee is working from home, they must be paid. If an employee is out of the office or otherwise unpaid, they should not be performing work without pay.
Occupational Safety and Health
- Employers should have an internal designee who keeps abreast of CDC guidance and is involved in all decisions regarding actions taken due to COVID-19. This will promote consistent and clear communications within and outside the organization.
- OSHA has these employer resources available: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/index.html and https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/standards.html#workers
Business Continuity Planning
- The CDC has included guidance regarding creating contingency plans in the event of outbreak here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html