Contagious Diseases in the Workplace

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) as a pandemic.  In the U.S., the number of reported cases has risen to over 1,000, resulting in travel suspensions, a plummeting stock market, and the cancellation of several public activities (including March Madness events).  Employers everywhere have been taking varied measures to respond to the outbreak, from canceling international and domestic business trips to requiring employees to work remotely from home.  While the situation looks bleak, it is not a time to panic.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended several preventative measures that employers can take to best mitigate the risk of catching and/or spreading contagious diseases, including the Coronavirus. We have summarized them below:

  • Take appropriate measures when employees travel: Employers may require an employee who is returning home from areas impacted by the Coronavirus, has had possible contact with an infected person, and/or has Coronavirus symptoms to stay home and possibly work from home for the 14-day incubation period or until they are medically cleared to return to work. Employers may also ask all their employees to notify their supervisor if they have recently traveled to an affected area.
  • Actively encourage employees to stay home: Employers should advise employees to stay home until they are free of a fever for 24 hours without the help of fever-reducing medicine. Employers should clearly communicate that they have the right to send home any employee exhibiting symptoms of a potentially contagious disease.
  • Separate sick employees: Employees who exhibit a cough and/or shortness of breath upon arrival to work or who become sick during the day should be separated from others and immediately sent home.
  • Encourage regular hand washing and proper cough/sneeze etiquette: Sick employees should be covering their noses and mouths with tissues or coughing/sneezing into their upper sleeve when tissues are not available. Additionally, employees should be washing their hands often, preferably with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.  When soap and water are not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizers (at least 60-95% alcohol) should be used.  Tissues, hand sanitizers, and no-touch disposable receptacles should be provided for employee use.
  • Keep up with routine workplace cleaning: Make sure that work environments are as clean as possible to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Routinely clean all frequently-used surfaces such as workstations, counter tops, phones, keyboards, and door knobs. Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down by employees before and after each use.
  • Allow for flexible policies: Although many employers require a doctor’s note to verify an employee’s illness if they stay home, the CDC recommends not requiring a note from employees with acute respiratory illness symptoms. Health care providers are extremely busy and may not be able to provide doctor’s notes timely.  Furthermore, employers should be aware that employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members more often than usual.
  • Keep employees informed of possible exposure: If an employee is exposed to or diagnosed with the Coronavirus, employers should notify other staff members of the potential exposure risk but be sure to maintain confidentiality regarding the worker’s identity and/or medical information in accordance with HIPAA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Any and all employee medical documentation must remain confidential.
  • Pay employees who are missing work properly: There are certain circumstances where an employer may be required to pay employees for time off work for medical reasons, including the PMLA, an employment contract, and/or a collective bargaining agreement. However, it is also common that  employees do not have any legal entitlement to be paid for time off work for medical-related absences. In any case, employers should strongly consider compensation plans for affected employees as many workers are financially unable to go for long periods without pay and/or they do not want to use all of their paid time off for one period of illness or potential exposure. Employees in these situations may try to conceal their symptoms or potential exposure and come to work anyway and expose the disease to their coworkers.
  • Place notices in the workplace that emphasize staying home when experiencing respiratory symptoms and good hygiene practices

Employers should be cognizant of these recommendations and put into place policies and procedures that, realistically, work best for their businesses and help lessen exposure to and/or spread of the virus.  It is further advised that employers do not make determinations regarding risk of the virus in the workplace based on an employee’s protected status, such as race, country of origin, age, or disability in accordance with the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Currently, the immediate health risk is considered low for the general American public in non-healthcare settings.  Still, as news around the Coronavirus is constantly changing, employers should keep up-to-date as the WHO and CDC release new information.  As always, UAP is here to help our clients in any way as this situation develops.