Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, is spreading rapidly across the globe and throughout the United States. Accordingly, employers should keep track of rapidly emerging developments and consider taking the 10 steps discussed below in order to maintain a safe workplace and to reassure their employees that management is appropriately monitoring and responding to the situation.
1. Educate Your Workforce and Communicate Regularly with Employees
Employers should communicate openly and often with the workforce so that employees have the information they need to help keep themselves educated and updated about the coronavirus. Communicating regularly with your employees regarding company policies and procedures related to good hygiene, business travel, quarantines, working remotely, safety precautions and screening visitors is an effective method to demonstrate to your workforce that you are monitoring the situation and working to keep everyone healthy and safe.
As part of those communications, we recommend that employers provide employees with additional resources so that they may learn more about the situation as it develops. For example, the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) has a detailed website, presently available in English, Spanish and simplified Chinese, that provides up-to-date information about the coronavirus. The CDC’s website includes details about, among other things, coronavirus symptoms, prevention and treatment, geographic updates, and frequently asked questions. The CDC’s website also includes links to posters that employers can download and place in restrooms and other areas of the workplace where they are likely to be seen. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) similarly has developed a website with useful materials for employers and employees.
2. Monitor Developments on a Daily Basis
The coronavirus situation is highly fluid. Both the CDC and WHO frequently update the information on coronavirus on their websites. Accordingly, employers should check these websites often as the outbreak continues to evolve. The CDC has a “latest updates” link on its website for the coronavirus. Similarly, the WHO has a “rolling updates” section on its website. For the benefit of US employers, the CDC also has developed interim guidance for businesses and employers to plan for and respond to issues related to the coronavirus. The CDC’s interim guidance provides a series of recommended strategies for employers to implement now, many of which we discuss below.
In addition to the websites and frequent updates from the CDC, WHO and OSHA, additional information may be available from state and local departments of health, as well as from the US Food and Drug Administration.
3. Appoint a Cross-Functional Coronavirus Emergency Management Team
Unlike weather-related crises, which often permit businesses to engage in some level of advance preparation, the coronavirus has the power to disrupt business operations significantly and without any warning. Employers need to be prepared to act quickly if the coronavirus enters their specific workplace. Accordingly, employers should appoint a central point of contact and cross-functional emergency management team (“EMT”) to address all of the issues arising from the coronavirus outbreak in the workplace, including employee health and safety; internal and external messaging; medical and sick leaves; workers’ compensation; short-term disability; the interactive process and potential accommodations under the ADA; confidentiality and privacy protections; technology support; and legal compliance. Where feasible, the EMT likely should include, at minimum, representatives of the HR, communications, IT, and legal departments.
4. Reinforce Good Hygiene Practices and Take Related Safety Precautions
The “General Duty” clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act generally requires employers to provide employees with a safe and healthy workplace that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm and to comply with occupational safety and health standards and rules. Accordingly, employers should remind employees to take basic preventive measures and safety precautions that may help to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus or spreading it in the workplace, including:
- Frequently washing their hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol;
- Avoiding touching their eyes, nose, and mouth;
- Covering sneezes or coughs with tissues, if possible, or else with a sleeve or shoulder;
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick;
- Staying home when sick; and
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and objects.
To facilitate these practices, employers should ensure that they maintain adequate supplies in the workplace, including tissues, soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, and hand wipes. The CDC has also recommended that employers provide no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees, place no-touch sanitizer dispensers in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage good hand hygiene, and provide employees with disposable wipes so that they can wipe down commonly used surfaces before each use.
5. Actively Encourage Sick Employees to Stay Home and Immediately Send Sick Employees Home
Consistent with CDC guidance, employers should actively encourage employees to stay home if they are sick or have been exposed to someone who is sick, and to remain home until they are free of a fever, signs of a fever or other symptoms for at least 24 hours. This is especially important for employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness. In fact, CDC guidance specifically recommends that employers send home immediately any employees who appear to have symptoms of an acute respiratory illness.
6. Suspend or Limit Business Travel
Employers should consider prohibiting or strictly limiting business travel to countries and regions that pose a high risk of transmission of the coronavirus. In that regard, the CDC has established geographic risk stratification criteria in order to issue travel health notices and guidance for public health management decisions about potential travel-related exposure to the coronavirus. The CDC’s three stratification levels are based on a number of factors such as the size, geographic distribution and epidemiology of the outbreak.
7. Quarantine Potentially Exposed Employees, Even if They Do Not Exhibit Symptoms
Both the federal government and some state and local governments have placed restrictions on entry to the United States from certain countries. Specifically, for individuals returning from certain countries designated by the CDC as Level 3, employees must be quarantined for a period of 14 days, the incubation period for the coronavirus. Employers may want to consider following this practice with respect to Level 2 countries as well, in order to slow the potential spread of the virus. Employers should require that if any employees become ill during a quarantine period, they should seek medical care and may return to work only after they have received appropriate clearance from their medical provider.
8. Consider Having Non-Essential Employees Work Remotely
In the digital age, it may be possible for employers to encourage many employees whose presence in the workplace is not essential to work remotely. Employers should consider the security risks of allowing employees to work remotely and should also take steps to provide IT support and equipment for employees who may be able to work remotely but have not historically done so. Employers should also ensure that they have a mechanism in place to ensure that such employees are paid for all hours worked, particularly with respect to nonexempt employees, and that they are provided or reimbursed for all necessary work-related expenses in accordance with applicable laws.
9. Be Mindful of the Interplay Between Sick Leave Laws and Policies, the FMLA, ADA, HIPAA and Workers’ Compensation
When dealing with the coronavirus, as with any instance of employee illness, employers should keep in mind that many different laws and policies may be implicated. If an employee communicates that he or she or an immediate family member has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, the employer generally should follow its existing sick leave, medical and other leave and workers’ compensation policies. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and state counterparts may be triggered if the virus becomes a serious health condition. Under many state and local sick leave laws, such employees must be permitted to use accrued paid sick leave. In addition, if the illness arises out of or in the course of employment, workers’ compensation benefits may be triggered.
10. Screen Visitors to the Workplace
Employers have a duty to protect visitors to the workplace from hazards that are not open and obvious. If an employer is aware of known cases of coronavirus infection among its employees, the employer may have an obligation to notify visitors. If the employer is also a landlord, the employer may have additional obligations to notify tenants of known infection events.
By the same token, visitors to the workplace, including vendors and delivery persons, should be screened for exposure to or symptoms of coronavirus and should be excluded from the workplace if they exhibit symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.