The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.”
Since the outbreak of respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus (also called COVID-19) that was first reported from Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019, the world has been on high alert.
As the number of confirmed cases and deaths continues to rise, the U.S. government has suspended the entry of foreign nationals who have been in China within the past 14 days and requires U.S. citizens returning from China to be quarantined for up to 14 days.
In this post, we address some of the employee safety and health issues raised for employers seeking to handle the possible impact of the coronavirus on the workplace.
What Is Coronavirus?
The coronavirus is a respiratory illness that causes symptoms ranging from fever, cough, and shortness of breath to pneumonia, kidney failure, and death. Symptoms may appear between 2 and 14 days after exposure, although some infected individuals may be asymptomatic. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the disease is spread from person-to-person contact, mainly when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
What Are the Legal Considerations for Employers Responding to a Threat of Contagion?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires U.S. employers, where it is within their control, to maintain a safe workplace without risks to health and to provide employees with information, instruction, training, and supervision to ensure their health and safety.
Additionally, there are important legal restrictions for employers to consider, including compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the National Labor Relations Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and employment contracts. Employers should consult with counsel to limit their legal liability before implementing any policies or responding to threats of possible contagion.
How Can Your Organization Prepare Itself?
Employers can fulfill their legal obligations and take the following preventative measures to stop the spread of coronavirus in the workplace:
Review current human resources policies and business continuity plans and procedures for communicable disease management and emergency response protocols. Consider what, if any, changes need to be made in the event of a potential pandemic.
Reinforce sick leave policies and paid time off policies and remind employees to stay home if they are feeling unwell or exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus. Send employees home if they show potential symptoms of the virus while at work. Document the circumstances leading to remote work due to the risk of coronavirus.
Review communication measures to ensure information is distributed to avoid creating hysteria, reduce anxiety, and continue business operations.
Provide employees with information about how the coronavirus is transmitted, what its symptoms are, and how to avoid exposure. Reinforce good workplace hygiene measures, such as handwashing and disinfecting surfaces.
Provide masks, hand soaps, hand gels, tissues, and other cleaning products in key places.
Review governmental travel restrictions and suspend any nonessential business travel to an infected region. Consider reasonable alternatives to international travel, such as working remotely.
Alert employees already in an infected region to seek medical attention if they present respiratory symptoms and fever and to follow the infection control precautions advised by the WHO and CDC. Advise employees returning to the U.S. from international travel that they may be questioned to determine whether any additional health screenings or quarantine may be required.
Consult with counsel before asking about an individual’s medical status. If you start an inquiry to determine whether employees may be symptomatic, ask all employees known or believed to have recently traveled to avoid any claims of discrimination. Note that the ADA prohibits employers from requiring a medical examination unless it is job-related and consistent with business necessity, such as a direct threat to the health of co-workers.
Consider whether to invest in liability insurance to protect against claims for failing to protect others from exposure to infection at the workplace.
By taking these steps, your organization can mitigate risk and gain a competitive advantage by being prepared in the event of a public health emergency. For more tips on compliance with the ADA, OSHA, and other federal labor laws, keep reading the Poster Compliance Center blog.