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Employer Concerns in the Wake of the Coronavirus

by Lisa Calick

The Coronavirus is on everyone’s mind, and while news channels continue to report on the speed in which the virus is spreading, fear and panic has started to set in.  Employers should take proactive steps to not only communicate to their employees, but to also develop contingency plans should an outbreak disrupt their normal business operations.  Your employees want to know that you care about their safety and have a plan in place, so if your business has not yet started discussions about a plan should an outbreak occur, you should do so now.

Anyone watching the news cycle has heard over and over again how important it is for people to take preventive measures to avoid getting sick.  However, these are important basic steps that cannot be mentioned enough, and should continue to be reinforced.

  • Remind your employees of the importance of good hygiene and protective measures to avoid not only getting sick themselves, but prevention measures to avoid spreading any germs. Encourage your employees to follow these recommended actions but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/prevention-treatment.html
  • Take additional steps to routinely clean and sanitize your workplace. This includes wiping down not only furniture and shared common areas, but other commonly touched places such as doorknobs, handles, telephones, keyboards, and other often overlooked places.
  • Place disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers in public areas so that employees can use them throughout the day, and to reinforce the need to stay healthy.
  • Ask your employees to monitor their own health and seek medical help if they exhibit symptoms such as dry cough, fever, muscle pain, and shortness of breath. Remember, these symptoms may be related to other medical conditions and not the Coronavirus.
  • Remind your employees to stay home when sick. This is an important preventive measure for any contagious illness, to avoid spreading to others.

Included in your communication to your employees should be steps to take regarding exposure to the virus.  Ask your employees to notify you if they have recently returned from any impacted area where they may have been exposed or if they have close contact with others who have been exposed to the virus.  If it is determined that potential exposure has occurred, you may request that your employee remain at home for the incubation period of 14 days, until they appear to be symptom-free.

While the above preventive measures are a good place to start, employers should plan to monitor and respond to absenteeism in the workplace.  Develop a plan to best continue your essential business operations in the event of higher than usual absenteeism.

  • Cross-train employees to perform essential functions so that your business may still operate if key staff members are absent
  • Be prepared to change your practices, if needed
  • Explore establishing flexible policies and practices, such as telecommuting and leave policies

Companies whose employees have the capability to work from home should discuss a plan for this should it become necessary.  Put into place some procedures to allow for the most effective continuation of your business.  Companies who have policies that restrict any telecommuting may wish to consider temporarily suspending those policies, and instead craft a plan to allow for such flexibility, where possible, in order to accommodate any changes in CDC recommendations and public health guidelines.

The challenge that businesses will face includes not only sick employees who cannot work, but those employees who will undoubtedly have disruption in their lives if their ability to come to the office is limited due to school closures or to care for sick family members.  Many of those employees may not have enough paid sick time or other paid time off available.  Businesses should look ahead to assess the risk to determine if they wish to modify their existing policies on a temporary basis, should these situations arise.  Employers will need to make sure to follow wage and hour laws for their non-exempt and exempt workers.

As businesses develop communications and contingency plans, they need to be mindful of their responsibilities to comply with applicable federal, state and local laws.  Paid sick leave laws in states, such New Jersey and New York, allow employees to use paid sick time for not only their own illness, but to care for a family member or in the event of closure of the workplace or child’s school due to a public health emergency.  In addition, employees who are absent due to a serious health condition of their own or a family member may be protected under the Family Medical Leave Act and may be eligible for benefits under state leave laws, depending on the circumstances.

Companies will also want to prevent stigma and discrimination in the workplace.  Be careful not to make assumptions of risk based on race or country of origin, and to ensure that no related discrimination or harassment occurs.  It is also very important to maintain the confidentiality of anyone who is confirmed to have the virus.  Communications with employees about their medical condition should always be kept confidential, and the identity of any infected employees should be kept private.  Companies who become aware of an employee who has the coronavirus will also report this on their OSHA Form 300 as a recordable illness.

For more information on the CDC recommendations for businesses, you may visit the below link to their website:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-business-response.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fspecific-groups%2Fguidance-business-response.html

Questions regarding your responsibilities as an employer? Please reach out to our HR Advisory team.

Coronavirus, COVID-19, healthcare, Human Resources, Lisa Calick

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