Coronavirus is the term used for a family of viruses which cause ailments ranging from the common cold to more severe respiratory illnesses. At issue currently is CoViD-19, a new strain which has not previously been identified in humans. While it is not yet exactly known how CoViD-19 is transmitted from person to person, scientists are trying to predict this information based upon what they know about other strains of Coronavirus. Currently it is believed that the virus has a 14-day incubation period, meaning that a person could be contagious before symptoms appear.
In an article updated on February 27, 2020, the CDC indicated that “for the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.” There are only 14 lab-confirmed cases in the United States as of February 26, and there are no confirmed cases in Ohio as of February 27, 2020. (By way of contrast, so far this season according to the CDC, “there have been at least 29 million flu illnesses, 280,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 deaths from flu.”)
What precautions should an employer take at this time?
At this point, employers should ensure that employees have a safe and healthy workplace focused around basic hygiene and social distancing precautions. Employers should encourage all workers to follow these basic practices:
Frequently wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
If soap and running water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60% alcohol.
Avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, or cough and sneeze into upper sleeves if tissues are not available. Follow up with washing hands or using hand sanitizer.
Having ample supplies of hand sanitizer, tissues, and no-touch receptacles will help employees, customers and other visitors to the workplace follow these basic precautions.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also recommends disinfectants to keep work surfaces, telephones, computer equipment and other frequently touched surfaces clean. Provide disposable wipes so that employees can wipe down these surfaces before each use. At this time, there is no recommendation for any additional disinfectant beyond routine cleaning.
Also consider placing posters at the workplace entrance and in other visible workplace areas which encourage employees to stay home when sick, to follow coughing and sneezing etiquette, and to clean their hands. If an employer does not already have a contagious disease policy in its handbook, consider whether to add one. This policy would reinforce hygiene best practices, encourage employees to stay home when sick, and identify additional management and worker responsibilities in the event of an outbreak. If you are interested in such a policy, contact ERA for more information.
What should an employer do if an employee has a respiratory illness?
Actively encourage sick employees to notify their supervisor and stay home. The CDC recommends that employees should “stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° F [37.8° C] or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g., cough suppressants).” The CDC also recommends that employers ensure that their sick leave policies are flexible and permit employees to stay home when they need to care for a sick family member.
If an employee is at work and appears to have a cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of acute respiratory illness, the employer should separate that worker from other employees and send the worker home immediately. Per OSHA, CoViD-19 is a recordable illness if an employee has been infected as part of a job duty. Accordingly, any such infections would need to be recorded on the OSHA 300 log. Other actions the employer may want to consider include instructing the employee to obtain a fitness-for-duty/return-to-work notice from their health care provider and providing leave (paid or unpaid depending on an employer’s normal leave policies) until they return with that notice.
A frequently asked question is whether an absence due to CoViD-19 would be protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act. Assuming that the employer is covered and that the employee is eligible for leave, the question is whether the illness is a serious health condition. The absence would need to involve either (1) any incapacity associated with an overnight stay in a hospital, hospice or medical care center or (2) an incapacity of at least 3 consecutive calendar days involving continuing treatment by a health care provider, which in relevant part would mean either (a) at least two visits to an HCP within 30 days or (b) one treatment with HCP plus a regimen of continuing treatment under the HCP’s supervision, such as the prescription of antibiotics or referral into some type of therapy. Follow usual certification and notification procedures to obtain appropriate substantiation for the protected leave.
What should an employer do if it suspects that an employee has been exposed to CoViD-19?
If an employer suspects that an employee has been exposed to someone with the virus or if an employee has traveled to China or South Korea in the last 14 days, the employer should consider instructing the employee to work from home for up to 14 days. This allows the incubation period to pass while waiting to see whether any symptoms arise. If working from home is not an option, consider a form of paid or unpaid leave consistent with the employer’s policies.
If an employee is confirmed to have CoViD-19, an employer should contact the CDC and their local health department, arrange for the workplace to be cleaned and disinfected thoroughly, and inform other employees of their possible exposure while ensuring confidentiality pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act As Amended. Employers can refer their workers to the CDC guidance on conducting a risk assessment of their potential exposure (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/risk-assessment.html).
It is important for employers to ensure that employees of Asian descent are not being treated differently or avoided in the workplace. This could give rise to potential discrimination or harassment claims. Taking steps in response to suspected exposure should be based on facts, not assumptions about a person due to their race or national origin.
Should there be any travel restrictions or conditions in the workplace?
With respect to employee travel, consider requiring employees to report non-business travel to affected countries, such as China or South Korea. Determine whether to require those employees to work-from-home for the 14-day incubation period or to undergo a medical examination before returning to work. Also require employees who become sick while traveling to notify their supervisor. In any event, advise all employees to check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices before their trips: (https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel)
What other steps should employers consider taking?
Additional steps employers may consider in the event that the spread of CoViD-19 continues in the U.S. include (1) establishing policies and procedures to increase the physical distance between employees, such as working-from-home and staggered shifts; (2) cancelling large meetings or events; and (3) cross-training workers to perform essential functions in the event that key employees would be absent.