The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, is spreading rapidly across the globe. Accordingly, employers should keep track of rapidly emerging developments and consider taking the 10 steps discussed below in order to maintain a safe workplace and to reassure their employees that management is appropriately monitoring and responding to the situation. Having a carefully coordinated and well-thought-out approach to the coronavirus should help mitigate risks for employers while reducing many employee concerns.
- Educate Your Workforce and Communicate Regularly with Employees
Employers should communicate openly and often with the workforce so that employees have the information they need to help keep themselves educated and updated about the coronavirus. Communicating regularly with your employees regarding company policies and procedures related to good hygiene, business travel, quarantines, working remotely, safety precautions and screening visitors is an effective method to demonstrate to your workforce that you are monitoring the situation and working to keep everyone healthy and safe. Soliciting direct input and suggestions from your employees, particularly on hygiene issues in your specific workplace, may help further reduce the risks of transmission of the virus. Regular communication helps not only to educate employees on best practices in the workplace but also to dispel myths and unfounded rumors, about the coronavirus itself and its potential impact on the workplace. In addition, employers that do not communicate with their employees may be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as ill-prepared to handle the outbreak and uncaring about the well-being of their employees. Such employers may also experience a greater number of potentially unnecessary employee absences. Employers should communicate in as many ways as possible, depending on their technical proficiency (e.g., global email, voicemail, text, phone tree, etc.).
- Monitor Developments on a Daily Basis
The coronavirus situation is highly fluid. Both the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) frequently update the information on coronavirus on their websites.
- Appoint a Cross-Functional Coronavirus Emergency Management Team
Unlike weather-related crises, which often permit businesses to engage in some level of advance preparation, the coronavirus has the power to disrupt business operations significantly and without any warning. Employers need to be prepared to act quickly if the coronavirus enters their specific workplace. Consequently, employers should appoint a central point of contact and cross-functional emergency management team (“EMT”) to address all of the issues arising from the coronavirus outbreak in the workplace, including employee health and safety; internal and external messaging; medical and sick leaves; workers’ compensation; short-term disability. Where feasible, the EMT likely should include, at minimum, representatives of the HR, communications, IT, and legal departments.
- Reinforce Good Hygiene Practices and Take Related Safety Precautions
Employers should remind employees to take basic preventive measures and safety precautions that may help to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus or spreading it in the workplace, including; Frequently washing their hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol; Avoiding touching their eyes, nose and mouth; Covering sneezes or coughs with tissues, if possible, or else with a sleeve or shoulder; Avoiding close contact with people who are sick; Staying home when sick; and Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and objects. To facilitate these practices, employers should ensure that they maintain adequate supplies in the workplace, including tissues, soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, and hand wipes. Encouraging good hygiene practices extends beyond employees themselves. Employers that rely on staffing services for contingent or temporary employees should ensure that those services are taking appropriate precautions for workers sent to the employers’ premises. Employers should also review their cleaning operations to ensure that frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, elevator buttons, phones, keyboards, workstations, and countertops are routinely disinfected.
- Actively Encourage Sick Employees to Stay Home and Immediately Send Sick Employees Home
Consistent with CDC guidance, employers should actively encourage employees to stay home if they are sick or have been exposed to someone who is sick, and to remain home until they are free of a fever, signs of a fever or other symptoms for at least 24 hours. This is especially important for employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness. In fact, CDC guidance specifically recommends that employers send home immediately any employees who appear to have symptoms of an acute respiratory illness. As a practical matter, employers who show flexibility with sick leave and attendance policies may facilitate more transparency by employees about their health. This, in turn, can help reduce the risk of exposure among the broader workforce. For example, employees who have exhausted their sick leave may be reluctant to disclose symptoms of coronavirus and/or miss work for fear that missing additional time will jeopardize their employment. Further, because medical providers may be busier than usual as a result of the coronavirus, employers may desire to be more flexible with employees about when employees must provide certification of a medical condition that renders them unable to work.
- Suspend or Limit Business Travel
Employers should consider prohibiting or strictly limiting business travel to countries and regions that pose a high risk of transmission of coronavirus. In that regard, the CDC has established geographic risk stratification criteria in order to issue travel health notices and guidance for public health management decisions about potential travel-related exposure to the coronavirus In the event employees refuse to travel for work, employers should consult with counsel before taking any steps, particularly if a group of employees jointly makes such a request, as the employer’s response should be tailored to the specific circumstances.
- Quarantine Potentially Exposed Employees, Even if They Do Not Exhibit Symptoms
When deciding whether to quarantine any employees and when dealing with employees required by governmental authorities to be quarantined, employers may need to address how to compensate such employees, particularly those who cannot work remotely during the quarantine period. Generally, subject to any contractual obligations that an employer may have, employers are permitted to require employees to use paid time off, provided that they do not work during that time. As the coronavirus spreads, employers may also encounter an increasing number of employees who wish to self-quarantine or self-isolate to protect themselves from workplace exposure to the virus. To the extent employers have the flexibility to allow employees who wish to self-quarantine to do so, that may go a long way to show support for employees in an obviously stressful and evolving situation; however, not all employers have this flexibility, and they also have to focus on keeping their businesses operating.
- Consider Having Non-Essential Employees Work Remotely
In the digital age, it may be possible for employers to encourage many employees whose presence in the workplace is not essential to work remotely. Employers should consider the security risks of allowing employees to work remotely and should also take steps to provide IT support and equipment for employees who may be able to work remotely but have not historically done so. Employers should also ensure that they have a mechanism in place to ensure that such employees are paid for all hours worked, particularly with respect to nonexempt employees, and that they are provided or reimbursed for all necessary work-related expenses in accordance with applicable laws. Employers may well see increases in absenteeism in certain locations, particularly if schools remain closed for periods of time and employees have young children. Employers should consider whether cross-training essential job functions among employees may help to alleviate the effects of increased absenteeism.
- Be Mindful of the Interplay between Sick Leave Laws, Policies, and Workers’ Compensation
When dealing with the coronavirus, as with any instance of employee illness, employers should keep in mind that many different laws and policies may be implicated. If an employee communicates that he or she or an immediate family member has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, the employer generally should follow its existing sick leave, medical and other leave and workers’ compensation policies.
- Screen Visitors to the Workplace
Employers have a duty to protect visitors to the workplace from hazards that are not open and obvious. If an employer is aware of known cases of coronavirus infection among its employees, the employer may have an obligation to notify visitors. By the same token, visitors to the workplace, including vendors and delivery persons, should be screened for exposure to or symptoms of coronavirus and should be excluded from the workplace if they exhibit symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.