Now that the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus, otherwise known as COViD-19, in the United States are rising, employers should look for ways to protect their employees and workplace. While the coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause various illnesses, from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), COViD-19 is a new strain that had not been previously identified in humans. As a result, employers should strive to educate themselves and their employees about COViD-19 and how it affects the workplace.
However, an employer's role is complicated by various legal issues touching upon safety, employee health, job functions and business travel. An employer should consider certain measures to better prepare and protect its employees and the workplace.
At this time, there are no laws or regulations specifically addressing an employer's legal obligations relating to COViD-19. However, employers should regularly consult the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the most current information on the coronvirus, including guidance for businesses. Also, employers must always be mindful the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. Under this clause, an employer is required to furnish each worker with "employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm." While this clause applies to a wide array of different situations, in the case of CoViD-19, it essentially requires an employer to ensure that their employees have a safe and healthy workplace.
In addition, the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standard issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that employers provide their employees with certain equipment - including gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory devices - when particular hazards may cause injury or impairment. Also, OSHA has deemed the coronavirus a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job and, therefore, an employer must record any such cases on the OSHA 300 log.
An employer should also consider workplace strategies relating to COViD-19, along with other infectious diseases. For example:
- Provide a letter to employees with guidance on COVID-19;
- Consider implementing a contagious disease policy to communicate to employees how the virus and other infectious diseases will be addressed in the workplace;
- Review information about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to ensure policies comply with federal laws;
- Evaluate FMLA criteria about whether an employee is eligible for leave for coronavirus-related conditions; and
- For those covered under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), consider privacy concerns.
Education as to the transmission and symptoms of COViD-19 is key to allaying fears and reducing misinformation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COViD-19 can be transmitted person-to-person, specifically through respiratory secretions, e.g., coughing and sneezing.
It is crucial that everyone is aware of the symptoms of COViD-19. Common signs of the virus are:
- Respiratory symptoms;
- Shortness of breath; and
- Breathing difficulties.
Severe cases may cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure or death.
Educating employees on the facts of COViD-19 will encourage communication and cooperation between employees and management on measures to ensure the health and safety of the workplace. Further, it would be prudent to:
- Determine how to address an infectious disease in the workplace;
- Evaluate additional workplace issues relating to infectious diseases;
- Consider how to address an employee with an infectious disease; and
- For employees who are currently in an affected region or have just returned, determine whether that employee may be required to undergo a medical examination.
Reducing Potential Exposure to the Coronavirus
As with most infectious diseases, there are certain precautionary measures an employer can take to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. For example, employees should be strongly urged to:
- Wash their hands frequently with soap and water;
- Hand sanitizers/wipes are also a good option when soap and water are not readily available.
- Maintain social distancing;
- Avoid touching their face;
- Cover their coughs or sneezes;
- Stay home if they are sick; and
- Self-quarantine if they have traveled to affected areas.
For those in the food services industry, special care should be taken to thoroughly cook meat and eggs. Also, those in the airline or airport industries who may interact with individuals traveling from China or another affected region may be more vulnerable to exposure and should take stricter precautions. Health care workers should especially take care as they may confront suspected cases of COViD-19 and provide treatment for those falling ill to the virus.
In order to stress the importance of these measures and demonstrate its commitment to the overall health of the workforce, consider taking additional steps such as placing tissue boxes at each workstation and hand sanitizers at several locations around the workplace, e.g., by the printer.
Addressing Concerns About Performing Job Functions
Be prepared for employees who may be nervous and concerned about contracting COViD-19. From an employee-relations perspective, an employer should be understanding of the employee's concerns and evaluate every request or issue based on the employee's particular circumstances.
If an employee refuses to come to work when a co-worker is suspected of having contracted the coronavirus or is displaying flu-like symptoms, consider alternative arrangements such as telecommuting. With the appropriate equipment, e.g., laptops and software, allowing employees to telecommute can go a long way to ease worries among the workforce and further protect the workplace from transmission. Also, have employees take their laptops home each night in case the office is closed or they cannot get to work.
If telecommuting or working at another location is not an option, clearly, but kindly, communicate:
- Why the employee cannot be accommodated;
- Why the risk of COViD-19 infection may be low;
- How the employee can protect themselves from infection; and
- What protective measures the employer will take.
There is still much that is unknown about the virus so listen to an employee's concerns and fears and be open to discussing alternative solutions.
In addressing or responding to a proposed alternative working solution:
- Review the telecommuting policy;
- Determine how to manage a telecommuter; and
- Consider additional issues relating to flexible working arrangements.
Business Travel to a Coronavirus-Affected Region
An employer may find that an employee has reservations or simply refuses to go on a business trip to a coronavirus-affected region. In this case, an employer should consider proposing an alternative, e.g., conduct the business from the "home office' or travel to a different region to reach the same desired result.
Also, check the CDC's advisories on travel restrictions as well as whether airlines are flying in and out of the region. Regardless, an employer should consider postponing all travel in and out of affected regions, e.g., mainland China, out of an abundance of caution.
The situation remains fluid so be sure to consult the latest news and resources on the appropriate government sites.