If you keep up with the news, you’ve likely heard a lot about COVID-19, or coronavirus. With the number of new cases continuing to increase worldwide, employers may be wondering what they can do to prepare for the risk of a potential outbreak.
Employers have an obligation to provide a safe and healthy workplace, which may include taking steps to protect against the risk or spread of infectious diseases. Implementing a sensible strategy to protect employees and the workplace in general will help employers demonstrate compliance with such legal obligations.
· Update contact details of employees and circulate emergency contact procedures.
· Perform a risk assessment, ensure good hygiene practices in the workplace, and train employees on the key facts and risks.
Currently, the CDC recommends everyday preventative actions, including:
Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Stay home when you are sick.
Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Provide appropriate health and sanitation supplies in and around the workplace including soap, paper towels, and tissues (as well as proper disposal containers).
· Review policies or procedures (such as communicable disease policies, safety programs, emergency response plans, travel policies, sick and dependent care leave policies, telecommuting policies, etc.) that may be affected by an outbreak.
· Craft and/or update policies carefully to avoid discriminatory impact. For example, travel policies should be narrowly tailored to specific geographic areas identified as high risk by the CDC and WHO.
· Remind all employees of leave policies. Employees who feel unwell, especially with flu-like symptoms, should be aware of available sick leave benefits, consider seeking medical attention if appropriate, and stay away from the workplace until they recover.
· Recognize implications and comply with all federal, state, and local laws, including OSHA, ADA, HIPAA, GINA, ERISA, Title VII, and sick and family medical leave laws.
· Reconsider work travel to a high-risk areas, or consider requiring employees who do travel to such high-risk areas to telecommute temporarily or otherwise wait a period of time before returning to the workplace (note certain restrictions are already in place, such as screening at airports and quarantine).
· Educate about symptoms and steps employees should take if they suspect they may have come into contact with someone with coronavirus and provide details of the nearest medical center equipped to deal with the virus.
According to the CDC, symptoms of the coronavirus include mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.
· Ask employees to report if they have been to a high-risk areas or if they have been in contact with someone else who has been to a high-risk area regardless of whether or not they are exhibiting symptoms.
An employer wishing to exclude an employee from the workplace due to legitimate health and safety concerns should first review applicable policies and employment contracts and weigh the risk of infringing on a restricted employee’s rights against the employer’s general duty of care towards all employees. Any exclusion or restriction period should be reasonable in duration, which generally will be no longer than the time taken to establish that the employee has not contracted the virus. If possible, employers should make efforts to allow a restricted employee to continue working remotely during any exclusion period, unless the employee is ill or otherwise unable to work. If remote work is not possible, employers should administer leave consistent with their leave of absence policies.
Similarly, if an employee wishes to stay away from the workplace due to a fear for his or her own health and safety, employers must balance legitimate rights of employees and the need to keep genuinely sick employees away from the workplace with the need to prevent unauthorized absences. If employee fears are reasonable, employers should not retaliate or discipline them for avoiding the workplace. An unreasonable refusal to work, however, may trigger enforcement of an employer’s attendance and disciplinary policies.
Employers must keep in mind that determining the appropriate actions to take in specific situations is a fact-dependent analysis. It is key that employers consistently comply with their duty of care with respect to health and safety of employees, contractors, clients, and visitors, while still seeking to strike a reasonable application of policies and balance of rights and obligations of the business and employees.
This blog article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Contact myHRcounsel with questions concerning specific facts and circumstances.