As the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, abbreviated as COVID-19, continues to spread, sensational media coverage has led to fear and panic, especially among those in the United States. Employers are pulling out their emergency preparedness plans, checking and updating supply kits, and some employers have gone as far as canceling events and conferences and limiting travel for employees in fear of putting people at risk of catching or transmitting the virus. While preparation and planning are key to keeping employees healthy and safe, fear-based decisions can greatly impact employee morale and productivity in a negative way.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that the current risk in the U.S. from the virus is low and no domestic travel restrictions are in place. However, some areas are now experiencing what is known as “community spread,” meaning some people have been infected who are not sure how or where they became infected. Therefore, the CDC encourages employers to develop plans in case the virus becomes more widespread, potentially resulting in containment efforts that could include limiting public transportation, closing schools and other constraints that could make reporting to work difficult for employees.
General COVID-19 Preventative Measures
The disease can be transmitted through droplets that are emitted during sneezing, coughing or breathing and can land on people or objects. Others can then catch COVID-19 by touching objects, surfaces or people and then touching their own eyes, nose, or mouth. Frequent handwashing and disinfecting of common surfaces like counters and doorknobs as well as regularly touched items such as phones and keyboards are recommended by the CDC as general preventative measures. It is possible to transmit the disease before exhibiting any symptoms, and in areas where there are known cases the CDC is recommending that employers allow workers to work remotely as much as possible to reduce person to person contact.
Employers can provide their employees with information to educate them on prevention as well as tools to assist with minimizing the risk of transmission, including:
- Providing employees with factual information about COVID-19 and its symptoms as well as the potential health concerns currently associated with traveling.
- Reminding employees of basic CDC guidelines to wash hands often, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer when washing is not available and avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Reminding employees to avoid close contact with people who are sick and stay home if they are sick themselves.
- Ensuring that employees have ample facilities and supplies including tepid water and soap, hand sanitizer, tissues and disinfecting cleaner.
- Allowing employees to teleconference in lieu of in-person meetings whenever possible.
- Offering employees updated contact information of the point-of-contact to reach out to for any health-related concerns.
How Employers Should Respond to COVID-19 Concerns
Employers are likely fielding an increased amount of question and concern surrounding the virus, and need to ensure they respond with factual information and remain compliant with laws and regulations that can be applied to this situation. As more cases are discovered, the biggest priority for employers is to take steps toward minimizing the risk of transmission among employees.
Employers may not prohibit employees from any legal activity, such as traveling abroad, while on personal time. Doing so could open the employer up to legal exposure and negative publicity, among other things. Rather than policing their employees’ personal time, employers should put their focus on repeatedly communicating recommended preventative measures.
Managing Sick Employees
If an employee begins exhibiting symptoms of either influenza or COVID-19 such as fever, cough and difficulty breathing while at the worksite, the employer should allow them to leave work and immediately seek medical attention for treatment and testing. Even though the likelihood of an employee testing positive for COVID-19 is very low, employers should err on the side of caution to reduce the risk of community spread.
If an employee has a confirmed case of COVID-19, the employer should ask them to identify all individuals who worked in close proximity (three to six feet) to them in the previous 14 days and should ask those employees to remain at home for a 14 day period to reduce the risk of spreading the disease further. Any workspaces that may have been affected should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized immediately upon confirmation of infection and re-cleaned periodically over the 14 day period. When sending employees home, it is very crucial for employers to avoid identifying the infected employee so that confidentiality laws are not violated.
Employee Refusal to Work
Some employees may choose to refuse to report to work out of fear of being infected, however, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), they can only rightfully do so if they believe there is “imminent danger” to their well-being. Most working conditions don’t meet OSHA’s definition of imminent danger, however certain obligations such as international travel or working closely with patients in a medical setting could push the job expectations over the threshold and protect the worker from discipline if they were to refuse to report.
Additionally, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) offers protections for employees who engage in “concerted activities” for their own benefit such as talking with their colleagues about working conditions or participating in a united refusal to work in unsafe conditions. Employers should take care to address the employee concerns surrounding potential exposure to the virus and avoid rushing to disciplinary measures.
Employers may want to revisit their PTO and work-from-home policies to help improve employee morale and allow workers to remain as productive as possible during a time where a lot of fear and misinformation is dominating public conversation. For more information on proper response to COVID-19 concerns, contact your HR Representative or Risk & Safety Consultant.
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NOTICE: Emplicity provides HR advice and recommendations. Information provided by Emplicity is not intended as a substitute for employment law counsel. At no time will Emplicity have the authority or right to make decisions on behalf of its clients.