On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) declared the coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” On Friday, February 28, 2020, WHO increased its coronavirus risk assessment to “very high” as the number of confirmed cases throughout the world continued to increase. While the number of cases in the United States remains low, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) forecasts that the coronavirus will ultimately cause a worldwide pandemic. The current CDC coronavirus summary can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/summary.html. The coronavirus outbreak raises a host of issues for employers as they attempt to minimize disruption to their business and protect their employees’ health. Although the CDC is encouraging people not to panic, now is the time for employers to remind their employees of basic contamination avoidance steps and to assess their policies and level of preparedness if a pandemic develops.
There are basic, everyday actions that employers should remind their employees to take to help minimize exposure:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water (the current guideline is 20 seconds).
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Stay home when you are sick.
To reduce the impact of a pandemic on a Company’s operations, employees, customers and the general public, employers should consider forming a pandemic team to establish an emergency communication plan and processes for tracking and communicating business and employee status. The Company or pandemic team should:
Request that employees report to their supervisors promptly if they are experiencing any coronavirus-like symptoms. Supervisors should be instructed to notify Human Resources upon such a report.
Assess the Company’s ability to permit employees to telecommute, in particular for extended periods of time. Along with that, review the Company’s leave and telecommuting policies and adjust them, if necessary, to enable employees to stay at home if they experience coronavirus-like symptoms.
Implement increased prevention and transmission precautions by increasing cleaning protocols, disposal of trash, and reminding employees of the need to wash hands frequently.
Consider suspending nonessential travel to China and other locations the CDC identifies as having high illness transmission rates.
Remind employees to consult CDC guidance and recommendations before any international travel.
Consider implementing a temporary policy that requires employees returning from highly affected regions to stay home for a 14-day period. Of course, ensure that any such policy is implemented uniformly without regard for race, gender, national origin, or other protected characteristics and consistent with applicable state laws, including laws regulating wages and leave entitlement.
Determine methods for communicating effectively with employees.
Prepare facility shutdown check-lists.
Create a business continuity plan applicable to a pandemic. Such a plan should address long-term absenteeism rates, whether pivotal business functions can be maintained with minimal staff, and what portion(s) of the business functions can be performed remotely.
Educate management concerning employee communications, transmitting self-disclosed infection information from employees, sending employees home who want to stay at work, and communicating with employees too scared to report to work.
Maintain the confidentiality of employee medical information. If an employee contracts the coronavirus immediately notify all potentially impacted employees of their possible exposure but do not include identifying information about the potentially contagious employee. The Americans with Disabilities Act, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and similar local laws all need to be considered before disclosing confidential medical or other protected information.
Do not make medical inquiries or require medical examinations of employees unless there is a reasonable belief that the employee’s medical condition poses a “direct threat” to the workplace, as required by the ADA and similar state laws. The ADA defines a direct threat as “[a] significant risk of substantial harm to health or safety of self or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(r).
If employers get to the point where they have additional employees working from home, or if employers should feel the need to shut down one or more offices for a period of time, employee wage payment issues are likely to arise. The Department of Labor has a helpful resource on Pandemic Flu and the Fair Labor Standards Act that addresses many of the wage-related issues that could arise. See https://www.dol.gov/whd/healthcare/flu_FLSA.htm
As the situation develops, employers should appoint someone to stay current on all CDC and OSHA guidance. On February 24, 2020, the CDC posted a page titled “Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), February 2020.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html. The CDC provides recommended strategies that employers should carefully review and apply. In addition, OSHA has a specific page dealing with the OSHA standards and directives for the outbreak. https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/standards.html#workers. OSHA recordkeeping requirements mandate that covered employers record certain work-related injuries and illnesses on their OSHA 300 log. While the regulations exempt the common cold and flu, COVID-19 is a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job. Visit OSHA’s Injury and Illness Recordkeeping and Reporting Requirements page for more information. https://www.osha.gov/recordkeeping/
SPECIAL NOTE: The employment and benefits group at Smith, Gambrell and Russell will be hosting a webinar on employment and benefits-related issues associated with the coronavirus. The webinar will be held on Friday, March 6, 2020. Registration information will be distributed shortly.
For more information on implementing policies and procedures in your workforce to address potential health concerns, please contact your Labor & Employment law counsel at Smith, Gambrell, & Russell, LLP.