What employers need to know about coronavirus and the workplace

By Jaclyn McNeely

Mar. 4, 2020

The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been closely monitoring the spread of coronavirus,  a respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. Now that the coronavirus has taken a deadly turn in the United States, many employers are looking for guidance as to how they may protect employees while continuing to adhere to their legal obligations in the workplace. 

Here are some suggestions that employers may take to protect themselves and their employees. 

COVID-19, coronavirus, public health crisisAllow employees to work from home as a precaution

In January, the CDC confirmed that the virus may be spread through person-to-person contact. In light of this information and the understanding that the incubation period is between two and 14 days, employers should consider allowing employees concerned about possible exposure to work from home, to the extent practicable. 

If remote work is not possible, employers could alternatively consider providing paid leave during that incubation period.

Consider alternatives to business trips

At the time of this publication, the CDC has issued a level 3 health travel notice — recommending that individuals avoid all unnecessary travel to China, Iran, South Korea and Italy. For those employers with employees traveling to any of these areas for business purposes, consider whether postponing or moving the location of the trip is a suitable alternative. Other options may include telephone and/or video conferencing. 

Similarly, if an employee expresses concern about business travel to other affected areas, employers should consider reasonable alternatives, mindful of OSHA’s requirement that employers provide “a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to . . . employees.”  

Assess risk on a case-by-case basis

With regard to those employees showing what could be early-stage coronavirus symptoms — which are similar to that of a cold — there is a risk of overreaction and business disruption if employers take a one-size-fits-all approach, requiring all employees with those types of symptoms to stay home. 

Instead, employers should assess risk on a case-by-case basis and encourage employees to seek and follow professional medical advice in a manner consistent with the employer’s usual sick leave policies.  

Similarly, employers should broach the topic of employees’ symptoms carefully as state and federal anti-discrimination laws limit medical inquiries by employers if doing so may reveal an employee’s disability. In light of these limitations, we recommend employers do what they can to ensure a healthy, safe working environment by encouraging any employees showing symptoms of the coronavirus to follow public health guidance and professional medical advice and by reminding employees about applicable human resources policies and procedures.  

Also read: Can an employer require an employee with a serious health condition to take FMLA leave?

Take care to avoid discriminatory behavior or actions

An employer must be mindful of all its legal obligations, balancing the requirement to ensure a healthy and safe working environment with its concurrent obligation to maintain a working environment that is free from unlawful discrimination.  For example, an employer should seek to avoid any stereotyping behavior by employees, such as inquiries related to the coronavirus that can be linked to an employee’s national origin. Such inquiries could result in claims of unlawful discrimination.  

Also read: COVID-19 and the role of businesses in a public health crisis

As another example, if an employee discloses their diagnosis with the virus, employers should work with them to determine what steps to take to prevent the spread to other employees in the workplace, as well as to enable the employee to recover and return to work.  Options may include a remote work arrangement, paid or unpaid sick leave or another form of leave of absence.

Importantly, employers should ensure supervisors are trained to avoid overreaction and are informed about the applicable laws that restrict inquiries into the health status of employees. They should also be trained on the importance of adhering to company anti-discrimination policies (including avoiding stereotyping based on race, ethnicity, and national origin).  

Communicate regularly 

By regularly communicating with employees as to current policies and procedures for managing the virus, employers will be best equipped to balance their legal obligations. If, in accordance with CDC or local health official guidance, an employer decides that any employee showing symptoms of the virus will be encouraged to stay home until they are fever free, this should be communicated to all employees uniformly. 

If an employee approaches management with specific questions, the employer should proceed with caution and avoid asking questions that may lead to the disclosure of an employee’s disability.  Instead, the employer should focus on the employee’s job duties and what adjustments, if any, can be made to enable the employee to perform those duties.

Balance safety and legal compliance

Employers cannot prioritize OSHA health and safety requirements over state and federal privacy and anti-discrimination laws. The threat of the virus does not excuse the employer from its other legal obligations, and claims are bound to arise if an employer lets one of its responsibilities slip.

Please note that the above information is based upon what is presently known about the coronavirus. This is an ongoing issue and employers should remain informed of further updates from the CDC and other local public health officials.  

Jaclyn McNeely is an Associate with Morgan, Brown & Joy, LLP, and may be reached at Morgan, Brown & Joy, LLP focuses exclusively on representing employers in employment and labor matters.

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