COVID-19 and Workplaces
March 23, 2020
By: Benjamin J. Wilson and Michael T. Cimino
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While our earlier post concerned what employers can do to promote a healthy and sanitary workplace to help fight the spread of the novel coronavirus (“COVID-19”), this post will discuss what an employer can do when one of its workers shows up to work displaying symptoms of COVID-19. With its high infectivity rate, this is becoming a more and more likely outcome for employers nationwide.
As a refresher, COVID-19 is a virus, and it spreads – quickly - between people who are in close contact with one another and through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It may also spread through surfaces and objects if a person touches the object and then touches their own mouth or nose. The symptoms of COVID-19 include a fever, cough, and shortness of breath, though some people have reported non-respiratory symptoms as well. Other people are even asymptomatic, meaning they have not experienced any symptoms at all, but still carry the virus. It is thought that people are most contagious when most symptomatic, but there may still be a chance of asymptomatic transmission.
What can an employer do when an employee shows up displaying these symptoms at a worksite? OSHA has recommended the following:
- Be Aware: Promptly identify and isolate the potentially infectious individual. This is a critical step to protect workers, customers, visitors, and others at a worksite. Be aware of workers’ concerns about pay, leave, safety, health, and other issues that may arise during infectious outbreaks.
- Encourage and Inform: Encourage workers to self-identify symptoms if they suspect possible exposure to the virus and to report those symptoms if necessary. Work with insurance companies and state/local health agencies to provide information to workers and customers about medical care in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak in your area.
- Develop Policies and Procedures for Reporting Illness: Employers are likely to see increased absenteeism during this time. If you haven’t already, develop internal policies and procedures for dealing with and reporting suspected illness. This includes implementing procedures for immediately isolating people who show symptoms of COVID-19 and even designating “isolation rooms” on the worksite. Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for those with acute respiratory illnesses to validate their leave or return to work.
- Provide Precautions: Take steps to limit the respiratory spread of COVID-19. Provide facemasks if feasible for the symptomatic person to wear. The facemask should not be confused with PPE for workers, though those too may help limit exposure.
- Protect Workers: Some workers may have to come into close contact with sick people. Use additional engineering or administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE with those workers who come into close or prolonged contact with sick individuals, or those who are a high or very high risk of exposure.
- Encourage Sick Employees to Stay Home: Actively encourage sick employees to stay home, and ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance. Maintain and develop policies that allow workers to stay at home and care for sick family members.
- Communicate: Reach out to businesses you partner with or contract with about the importance of sick employees staying home. Encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
Additionally, Jackson Kelly’s Labor and Employment Team has put together a FAQ for employers as COVID-19 spreads. There, we note that an employer may send an employee home if they are displaying flu-like symptoms. Moreover, employers should be wary of terminating employees for absenteeism if they have been home sick during this time and exhausted sick leave. The COVID-19 infection may even qualify persons for FMLA leave or even be a qualifying disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Jackson Kelly remains committed to helping employers navigate this ever-evolving outbreak. This includes guidance for your business operations, but also looking out for the well-being of your employees. Please contact a member of Jackson Kelly’s Workplace Safety and Health Team if you have any questions or concerns.