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Steps to Address Coronavirus in Your Workplace Steps to Address Coronavirus in Your Workplace

Steps to Address Coronavirus in Your Workplace

With the first two deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States, you may be concerned about how the spread of the virus in the US will affect your business. New or increasing outbreaks of COVID-19 are being reported on a daily basis and strict travel restrictions have been put in place for those countries with the most severe outbreaks (including China, Iran, Italy and South Korea). Fortunately, most individuals who have contracted the virus have recovered without requiring significant medical treatment. As we are reminded by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there is no reason to panic – the key is to be prepared.
 
In view of the current situation, every employer should take these steps:
 
1.         Keep Informed. Your human resources department should maintain current information regarding the extent of the outbreak. Do not rely exclusively on social media or the news media. The following government websites are being updated multiple times every day, and they contain excellent information:
 
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
 
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html
 
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html
 
https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
 
https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/
 
You will find that the above websites contain materials you can use to educate employees on the fundamentals of avoiding viruses, including COVID-19, such as the symptoms (e.g., fever, cough, shortness of breath); modes of transmission; strategies for avoiding transmission (e.g., hand hygiene, coughing/sneezing etiquette, staying home when ill, etc.); travel advisories and community and workplace strategies (e.g., social distancing, provision of infection control supplies). 
 
2.         Communicate with Employees. Communicate with your employees so they know what your organization is doing, particularly if you are planning large meetings in the next few months or if your employees travel. Share the CDC and World Health Organization websites with your employees so they can review them and obtain accurate information for themselves and their family members. Make sure your communications are balanced based on the latest information about the virus. The goal is to reassure your employees, not fuel any unfounded fears. Be cautious of making any predictions, even when those predictions are supported by experts in public health. The nature of the situation remains fluid, and if leadership makes incorrect predictions, it will damage the company’s ability to communicate information in the future.
 
3.         Encourage Infection Control Practices. Communicate and post good hygiene and infection control practices that will help keep everyone healthy. Remember that, although COVID-19 is dominating the news, we are still in the flu season, so these practices help with a variety of viruses. Advise your employees to wash their hands frequently, use hand sanitizers, cough into tissues or their sleeves and avoid close contact with individuals who are ill. Make hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes readily available in easily-accessed locations in your facility. Tell your employees to stay home if they are ill.
 
4.         Consider How to Handle Travel. Consider whether meetings or conferences can be postponed and whether travel (particularly international travel) is essential. If your employees travel internationally, review the Centers for Disease Control website for travel advisories for particular countries: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html (for COVID-19 advisories only); https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/notices (all travel notices). If your business relies on communications with customers across the country or the globe, consider whether alternative means of communications – such as video conferences – can be effective. If your organization relies on large meetings or conferences, consider whether you have insurance that protects you from losses if those meetings or conferences need to be cancelled. You will also want to consider how to address personal travel. If an employee or member of an employee's household travels to an affected area, consider whether it is possible for the employee to work from home for two weeks when the employee (or the household member) returns and, if not, whether you will require a leave (and if that leave will be paid).
 
5.         Review Your Leave Policies. Make sure your FMLA and other medical leave policies are up to date. You may also have a facility in a state that has leave laws that go beyond the FMLA in protecting your employees. Make sure you understand those laws so you can avoid potential liability. 
 
6.         Address Potential Illness in Your Workplace. Managers and supervisors should be advised to avoid stigmatizing any employee because of his/her national origin. However, if a manager or supervisor reasonably believes an employee has contracted any contagious illness, including COVID-19 or the flu, he/she should report that belief (and the reason for the belief) to human resources immediately. Managers and supervisors should be advised to do this in a confidential manner. If you reasonably suspect an employee may have COVID-19 (or the flu), it would be best to send him/her home until the symptoms subside or the employee is cleared by a health care professional. Remember that it may become difficult to obtain a note from a health care professional if the outbreak spreads. If your employee refuses to leave the workplace, consider whether you want to force the employee to go home or impose social distancing requirements in the workplace. Contact counsel to discuss options and risks. Social distancing requirements may be helpful at some point, even if you do not suspect a case of the virus in your workplace. Also, advise your employees to promptly see a physician if they experience symptoms of COVID-19, or any flu-like symptoms. Do not send any employee to a medical testing facility without consulting legal counsel regarding your rights to request a medical test under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state disability laws.
 
7.         Learn How To Handle a Case of COVID-19 in Your Workplace. If an employee advises you that he/she has COVID-19 (or the flu), do not under any circumstances disclose this information (i.e., information about who has the virus) to anyone other than those who have an absolute and identifiable need to know. Failing to follow this recommendation not only could result in an overreaction among employees, but may also violate ADA confidentiality requirements. You may need to work with and follow the instructions of local health officials if an employee with COVID-19 came into the office/facility before realizing he/she had been infected. The websites listed above provide some useful information for businesses.
 
8.         Develop Strategies for Handling a Potential Lock Down. Consider how you will respond if your area or building is placed on a lock-down or if local schools are closed to prevent the spread of the virus. You may also want to consider how you will respond if an employee tells you he/she refuses to come to work out of fear. Review your policies, particularly those related to absenteeism and telecommuting, so you know how to respond in a consistent and non-discriminatory manner and you are prepared for the need for employees to work from home. Now is the time to consider any issues that may arise with remote connections to your servers if a large number of employees need to work from home. You may also want to consider requiring employees with laptops (particularly exempt employees) to take them home regularly so they can work in the event of an unexpected lock down.
 
9.         Prepare for Requests to Volunteer. Consider how you will respond if individuals ask for time off to volunteer for public service agencies. Will you permit them to take this time off with or without pay?
 
10.       Consider Legal Requirements Before Shutting Down a Location. In other countries, some businesses have voluntarily shut down locations for periods of time. Although this may not be necessary, if you are considering closing a facility for an extended period, you need to consider the applicability of the federal WARN Act and any state plant closing laws. It is recommended that you give as much advance notice as possible and, if a union represents your employees, you should notify the union's business agent in a timely manner.
 
We will continue to monitor the outbreak and assist employers in developing policies and procedures that meet your business needs while complying with the applicable laws. If you need any other information or if a situation arises and you need advice, please contact Tami A. Earnhart or any other member of our Labor, Employment & Immigration Group.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader should consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader’s specific circumstances.


 
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