Since the World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus outbreak an international public health emergency in January, there have been more than 105,000 confirmed cases in more than 100 countries, with the majority in China, which has reported nearly 81,000 confirmed cases. In the U.S., as of March 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed more than 150 cases and eleven deaths across more than a dozen states.
The CDC is now advising that the spread of the virus in the U.S. seems "inevitable" and has published guidelines for businesses and employers to help limit exposure to the virus. Fueled by robust news coverage and social media commentary, the potential health effects and the level of concern about the virus are creating issues for the global economy and for business operations and employee relations. Employers are therefore advised to prepare their workplaces for possible contact with coronavirus.
8 suggestions for preparing your workplace for Coronavirus:1. Educate employees
Panic is often fueled by lack of knowledge. Employers can play a key role in allaying employee fears by providing accurate and consistent information about the coronavirus by drawing on the latest guidelines provided by the CDC. For example, consider highlighting facts that put the Coronavirus outbreak in perspective, such as:
• Risk of coronavirus exposure in the U. S. remains low, except among certain populations such as healthcare workers, travelers returning from certain regions and individuals with compromised immune systems and/or poor respiratory health.
• Worldwide, most people who have contracted the virus experienced only mild symptoms and recovered fully, and for some, symptoms were so mild that they were not even aware of that they had anything other than a cold or seasonal flu.
• In contrast to the last season of the influenza virus, which caused at least 32 million illnesses and 46,000 deaths, the coronavirus is responsible for 3,500 deaths worldwide as of March 1, 2020.
Likewise, offering advice on how to mitigate the risk of contracting the virus will help protect employees and their families from this virus and others like the common cold and usual seasonal flu, including the following tips:
• Frequently wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based sanitizer. Soap and water washing is preferable; in fact, evidence reported by researchers illustrates that this method is more effective in destroying or deactivating the virus.
• Avoid touching the face, particularly the eyes, nose, and mouth.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Stay home when sick.
• Cover coughs or sneezes, preferably with tissues; if no disposable tissue is readily available, use the crook of the elbow.
• Disinfect frequently-touched objects and surfaces, especially doorknobs, switch plates, telephones, cellphone and tablet touchscreens, common-area tabletops and appliance handles/control panels.2. Avoid stereotyping
Because the novel coronavirus originated from mainland China, increased incidents of xenophobia and prejudice against persons of Chinese or East Asian descent have been reported in U.S. workplaces. The Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization has released a statement cautioning against "actions that promote stigma or discrimination" while conducting responses to the outbreak. Ensure that employees are educated on this matter, so as to avoid potential workplace incidents.
EEOC has issued guidance, consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, to help employers deal with pandemic planning and preparedness. EEOC acknowledges that, while the ADA and Rehabilitation Act rules continue to apply, they do not prevent employers from following CDC guidelines and suggestions.3. Encourage sick employees to stay home
The CDC advises employers to "actively encourage" sick workers to remain at home. Specifically, "employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness [fever, cough, shortness of breath] are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° F [37.8 C] or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants)."
To this end, employers are advised to:
• Maintain clear, yet flexible, sick-leave policies, and proactively communicate policies to employees.
• Allow employees to stay home/work from home if exhibiting signs and symptoms of illness without requiring a doctor’s note. (Requiring a medical provider’s note to excuse the absence is likely to encourage unnecessary visits to physicians’ offices and urgent care facilities, which the CDC and others are concerned may overburden the country’s healthcare system, resulting in delayed treatment of actual medical emergencies.) When granting permission, clearly articulate to the employee that this is a temporary and extraordinary measure that does not establish a general precedent or ongoing work-from-home arrangement.
• Encourage employees who stay home to self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms (fever, coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing) and communicate with you if such symptoms develop.4. Require self-quarantine of certain employees
In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is reasonable to require employees to work from home for 14 calendar days, the length of the suspected incubation and transmission period, if they have traveled to/returned from China or other affected regions within the past 14 days, or if they have had close contact with someone confirmed to have the virus or someone who is being evaluated for infection.
5. Modify travel expectations
To minimize exposure to Coronavirus and other seasonal illness, employers may wish to consider canceling or postponing non-essential travel for now. Instead using email, tele-conferences and video conferences where possible can minimize the disruption of business operations. Employees who plan to travel for either business or personal reasons should check the CDC's Traveler Health Notices for the latest recommendations regarding affected countries.
Presently, the CDC recommends canceling all non-essential travel to and from the People's Republic of China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy. It is also recommended that older adults and persons with chronic medical conditions postpone travel to Japan, and travelers to/from Hong Kong should consider deferring or take precautions regarding travel.
Finally, employees should be encouraged to disclose their travel and contact history to HR/management if they have visited one of the high-impact locations or have been in direct contact with someone who has been in those locations within the previous two weeks. As a precautionary measure (and to allay co-workers’ concerns about exposure), employers may wish to allow such employees to work from home for a couple of weeks.6. Adopt a communicable illness policy and business continuity plan
If you do not currently have one, now is the time to create and implement a communicable illness policy and business continuity policy with the help of legal counsel. In lieu of formal policies/plans, employers should, at a minimum, instruct employees to take their laptops home every evening, so they will be prepared to work remotely in case of illness or other emergency.
7. Balance safety and confidentiality concerns
Employers are allowed to exclude a person with a contagious disease (or who has been exposed to such illness) from the workplace or work-related programs/events if the employer concludes (based on a reasonable medical determination) that such restriction is necessary for the welfare of the affected employee and/or the welfare of others within the workplace. If an employee is diagnosed with Coronavirus, employers should notify other employees that they may have been exposed, while taking care to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the affected employee as required by the ADA. Also, any documents pertaining to employee medical records should be kept in a secure and confidential location separate from the employer’s personnel files.
8. Collective bargaining agreements
Although the above recommendations generally hold true for unionized workforces, some requirements in collective bargaining agreements (CBA) can limit an employer’s ability to take unilateral action even in an emergency. Therefore, employers of unionized employees should review the overall CBA, as well as the management rights clause, to ensure that any special health measures you intend to implement are permissible under the contract. The union representative for your employees can also help ensure that employees understand and cooperate with company policies around the coronavirus.
A proactive approach to Coronavirus management by employers will pay dividends in the event your company is impacted by the virus. If you have questions about how to prepare your workplace, please contact Patricia Lantzy at firstname.lastname@example.org or (804) 683-1737, or Contact Us to speak with one of our on-demand attorneys.
A member of our Washington D.C.-based team, Patricia Lantzy is a highly skilled labor and employment attorney with 25 years of experience. Trish works with a wide range of clients, from individual executives and small businesses to the Fortune 500, on employment-related issues across the employee lifecycle, including recruiting, hiring, workplace harmony and leave issues, performance and discipline/discharge, corporate reorganizations and reductions in force.