The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Coronavirus Updates and Information from the CDC
As the coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, employers may wonder what steps they should take to ensure a healthy workplace.
While the flu season can have employers worried about the wellbeing of their workers each year, the outbreak of the more deadly virus has many doubly concerned about the health and safety of their employees.
First detected in late 2019, the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, and is far more virulent than the typical flu. The death rate for coronavirus is 2.3 percent, versus 0.1 percent with the common flu, according to the New York Times.
The coronavirus (now officially called COVID-19) has since spread to countries around the world. The spread of the respiratory virus has led to:
- Major event cancellations
- Rerouted flights and cancellations
- Deteriorating economic forecasts
- Product shortfalls
Though China is facing the brunt of the effects, dozens of countries have seen the coronavirus breach their borders. In the U.S., there have been 225 confirmed cases and 14 deaths as of March 6, according to NBC News.
Precautions for Employers
While the coronavirus is not widespread in the U.S. at this time, employers may still be considering precautions, especially as we’re currently in the middle of the flu season.
But before implementing any workplace policy about the coronavirus, employers must make sure it’s applied evenly. Anything that could run afoul of the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) should be avoided to head off potential litigation.
Remember that employers cannot ask about illnesses under the ADA unless it’s voluntary or necessary for the business. Managers should also be wary of discriminating against workers from China.
“Do not make determinations of risk based on race or country of origin,” reads guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “and be sure to maintain confidentiality of people with confirmed coronavirus infection.”
At the least, a positive diagnosis for coronavirus would likely qualify as a covered reason under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows for unpaid job protection under certain circumstances.
What Should Employers Do?
Because the coronavirus apparently spreads much like other illnesses, basic steps can be taken to reduce its transfer to others, i.e., hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, using hand sanitizer, etc.
For employers concerned about of workers who may exhibit symptoms, the World Health Organization outlined common signs of the coronavirus: “respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.”
When it comes to maintaining a healthy workplace, employers can:
- Actively encourage sick employees to stay home
- Allow remote work when feasible
- Maintain clean workspaces for employees
- Communicate local paid sick leave laws, if applicable
- Assess whether any employees have recently traveled to China
- Delay planned work trips to China
- Alert employees that they should stay home from work if they become ill
Should an employee already be traveling in China, it may be reasonable to not allow the individual to return to work for two weeks — the incubation period for coronavirus is 14 days.
The CDC has issued interim guidance for businesses and employers, as well as guidance for those who work in healthcare and related fields. Employers can find also an FAQ page about COVID-19 from the law firm of Epstein Becker & Green.
The world health community continues to closely monitor the emergence of COVID-19.
At this time, no one knows how severe this outbreak will be. Given this uncertainty, and the fact that the seasonal influenza (flu) virus is also widespread, employers should take proactive steps to address a number of business concerns. First and foremost, maintain a safe workplace and encourage and/or adopt practices protecting the health of employees, customers, visitors or others.
Employees should be reminded of the following:
- Stay home when you are sick
- Wash your hands frequently with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds
- Cover your mouth with tissues whenever you sneeze, and discard used tissues in the trash
- Avoid people who are sick with respiratory symptoms
- Clean frequently touched surfaces