Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. Patients with the condition have had mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath. As the disease continues to spread worldwide, employers and employees may have questions about what they can do to help manage the situation and prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace. Here are some guidelines that can help:
#1: Monitor guidance from health officials
Besides the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the World Health Organization have created dedicated webpages with information on COVID-19. In addition, state and local health officials are developing guidelines and resources on the illness. Check your state Department of Health for additional information.
#2: Develop and communicate workplace policies
Develop hygiene policies aimed at keeping the workplace clean and reducing the spread of communicable disease. Policies should be consistent with public health recommendations and existing laws. Provide employees with information on how viruses are transmitted and help employees practice healthy habits by providing tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap and sanitizer, and disposable towels. Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. The situation is evolving quickly, so review and update policies as more information becomes available.
#3: Encourage employees to stay home if they're sick
Encourage employees to stay home from work if they're sick. The CDC recommends that individuals wait at least 24 hours after they're free of a fever or show signs of a fever or any other symptoms (without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines) before returning to work. Avoid pressuring ill workers to return to work too soon. Inform employees of the company's paid time off or sick leave policies and associated call-in procedures in the event of an absence due to illness.
#4: Understand leave requirements
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and similar state laws require employers to provide unpaid leave to employees with serious health conditions. The FMLA applies to employers with 50 or more employees, but some states have similar laws that cover smaller employers. Several states also have paid family and medical leave programs. Additionally, a large number of state and local jurisdictions require employers to provide paid sick leave to employees. Employers should confirm that their leave policies and practices comply with all applicable laws.
Even in the absence of a leave requirement, employers should consider maintaining flexible policies that encourage employees to stay home when they're sick and permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member.
#5: Offer flexible work arrangements
Flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting, flexible schedules, and staggered schedules can help prevent the spread of the illness by allowing employees to work without exposing themselves or others to the virus. Greater use of teleconferences and e-mail versus face-to-face meetings are additional social distancing strategies that can help prevent the spread of illness.
#6: Send symptomatic workers home
If an employee shows symptoms of acute respiratory illness, separate them from other employees and send them home immediately. Remind sick employees to cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available).
Note: If a worker's condition were to qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or similar state laws, consider reasonable accommodations and evaluate whether the illness is severe enough to pose a direct threat to others in the workplace.
#7: Consider business-travel restrictions
Currently, the CDC is recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. The agency also says that older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel to Japan.
Some employers have enacted business-travel restrictions that exceed the CDC's recommendations, such as prohibiting all business travel to other countries. Review the CDC's travel guidance and develop business-travel rules that make sense for your company. Monitor the situation closely and adjust your rules as circumstances change.
#8: Address sick family members
Ask employees to notify you if they have a family member who has COVID-19 and direct them to the CDC's guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
#9: Obtain information cautiously
Ask employees who call in sick if they're experiencing symptoms, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath. Avoid questions that are likely to elicit information about a disability, which could result in the employee revealing that they have an condition that is covered under the ADA.
#10: Maintain privacy
Treat all information about an employee's illness as a confidential medical record and keep the information separate from their personnel file. If you wish to inform employees about a communicable disease in the workplace, do not reveal who has the illness.
#11: Develop a business continuity plan
Depending on the size of your business and the number of ill workers, you may experience impacts to your day-to-day operations and your bottom line. Consider a business continuity plan that outlines essential business functions and essential jobs or roles required to maintain business operations. In addition, consider cross-training employees so they can fill in for co-workers who are absent. Train employees on your plan so they're prepared to execute it if needed.
#12: Protect employees from discrimination and harassment
Federal, state, and local laws prohibit employers from discriminating against or harassing employees based on certain protected characteristics. Employees whose families are, or are perceived to be, from places where an outbreak has occurred may face discrimination and/or harassment as a result. Take all complaints seriously and launch a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the complaint. If an investigation reveals that discrimination or harassment occurred, take immediate and appropriate corrective action. Consider disciplinary measures that address the severity of the offense and administer your disciplinary policy on a consistent basis.
Employers should monitor guidance from health officials, develop and update policies and practices that will help prevent the spread of COVID-19, comply with applicable laws, and consult legal counsel as needed. See the following Tip of the Week for common employer questions and answers.