The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (“COVID-19”) has sparked concerns throughout the country of a potential widespread outbreak. While the impact of the virus in America is currently low, experts have warned that community spread is likely in the near future. U.S. employers need to begin to take reasonable precautions to minimize the risk of transmission. This article will provide several initiatives employers can take to help prepare for COVID-19 and its impact in the workplace.
One of the most important things employers can do is to preemptively communicate their policies regarding sick time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has released recommended strategies for employers to use in preparation for a COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. Employers need to review these recommendations and make sure that their policies align. If these policies need to be altered, employers’ HR departments ought to implement these changes and then share updated policies with employees, allowing employees to ask questions or share concerns. During this time of uncertainty, employers need to be empathetic of employees’ concerns and support employees with a clear and open dialogue.
Providing employees with clear and accurate information will help alleviate stress and reduce unnecessary fears about the virus. Further, it signals to employees that you are on top of the issue and are operating with a plan.
Follow the Basics
Employers are encouraged to inform their employees to follow basic practices to prevent the spread of germs and illness in the workplace. Employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when sneezing or coughing or use the bend in their elbow.
The CDC recommends that individuals wash their hands frequently with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer than contains at least 60-95% alcohol. Employers can provide these products to help promote hygiene.
Employees who show up to work sick or become sick during the day should be sent home immediately. If an employee develops a fever, a cough, or an upper-respiratory illness, that employee should stay home and not return to work until they are free of fever and other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-alleviating medication. Employees must follow the employer’s sick leave policies for reporting time off for illness.
Employers need to routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. There is no need to buy specialized disinfectant products – the cleaning agents that are normally used to clean these areas will likely kill COVID-19.
If there is a COVID-19 outbreak, employers are best to be flexible in allowing employees to work from home, if possible. Keep in mind that employees may also need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members. Once again, employers should clearly communicate expectations and alter existing policies if necessary.
If remote working is not feasible for an employer’s business and an employee refuses to show up to work due to fear of COVID-19, employers may want to consider allowing the employee to use paid time off or take unpaid leave for a period of time.
In the wake of COVID-19, there have been numerous racist attacks against individuals of Chinese or Asian descent throughout America. In the workplace, actions such as refusing to interact with colleagues or clients who are of Asian descent could lead to discrimination complaints. Employers who allow or tolerate discriminatory conduct or hostility towards Asian employees can create potential legal liability.
In addition, in preparing for COVID-19, employers are best to not establish any policy that disparately impacts employees of Asian descent. Rather, any actions the employer takes needs to be based on whether an individual employee has potentially been exposed to the virus, not their national origin or ethnicity.
Follow Travel Restrictions
Currently, the U.S. State Department and CDC has issued travel advisories for several countries that have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks. The State Department lists China at its highest advisory level, “Level 4: Do Not Travel” due to the “rapidly spreading outbreak” of COVID-19. Other countries and territories that have raised travel advisories due to the virus are South Korea, Hong Kong, Italy, Iran and Japan.
Employers may consider cancelling or postponing business trips to these nations for the time being. Impact of COVID-19 on older employees, employees with immunodeficiencies, and pregnant employees need to be given consideration, as they are at greater risk of health complications if they become sick with the virus. However, all travel restrictions should be imposed impartially to avoid an implication of discrimination.
Create a Communicable Illness Policy
With the concern that COVID-19 may become a pandemic, it is crucial that employers have a communicable illness policy in place. The policy should address communicable illnesses generally and not just COVID-19. A strong communicable illness policy outlines employee obligations for reporting illness, how employees can minimize their exposure to the illness, reference the employer’s sick leave policy, procedures for travel restrictions during an outbreak, rules for when employees must not report to work, and a communication plan in the case of an outbreak.
A communicable illness policy outlines an employer’s emergency protocol in the event of a widespread outbreak. Having this policy in place lets employees know you have prepared for the situation and their wellness is a priority. Let us know if you need our assistance to draft a communicable illness policy.
As of now, COVID-19’s ultimate impact in America is unknown. Because an outbreak of some sort is inevitable, employers need to exercise precaution and forethought in dealing with this virus. Being caught unprepared can have severe ramifications on employees and business. Even if the worst-case scenario is avoided and COVID-19’s effect is minimal, it is better to be prepared and have a plan in place for dealing with widespread illness, both now and in the future.