The Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and its worldwide spread has dominated the news over the past week and likely will for some time to come. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. Originating in China, the virus has spread to numerous other countries, including to a lesser extent (at least so far) the United States. At present, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that for the general American public and for workers in non-healthcare settings, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low. For most people who become infected, COVID-19 will cause mild illness followed by recovery. For others, especially older adults and
those with certain existing medical conditions, infection can be more severe.
Both CDC and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) advise employers to develop a response plan for the COVID-19 outbreak. Existing OSHA standards, including the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970 (which mandates that employers provide a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm), apply to protecting workers from COVID-19. This is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation, such that employers are therefore advised to stay up-to-date with CDC’s assessments and guidance by regularly visiting https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.
I. Initial Strategies to Help Prevent Workplace Exposure
In non-healthcare settings, CDC recommends a number of measures for employers to implement immediately to help reduce the risk of acute respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19 and seasonal influenza:
Educate and remind about respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene. To stay as healthy as possible, remind employees to take the basic protective measures recommended by CDC. Posters reminding of these good habits can be downloaded at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/factsheets.html.
- When coughing or sneezing: cover your mouth with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash; or cough/sneeze into your bent elbow.
- Wash your hands with soap and water throughout the day, for at least 20 seconds. Or clean your hands regularly with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. If you must touch your eyes, nose, and mouth, wash/sanitize your hands before and promptly after doing so.
- Tissues and hand sanitizer: place additional tissues and hand sanitizers in common areas throughout your facility.
Actively encourage sick employees to stay home. Employers should remind employees that during cold and flu season, it’s always best for employees who are sick to stay home and recover. But in particular right now, employees who have symptoms of COVID-19 (fever of 100.4º or higher, cough, and shortness of breath) should be instructed not to come to work; they should notify their supervisor or HR and stay home (except to seek medical care). Employees who have a respiratory illness should stay home and not come to work until they are fever-free and free from symptoms (without the use of fever-reducing or other medicines) for at least 24 hours.
Practice social distancing. Maintain 3-6 feet distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing. Suspend the common courtesy of shaking hands with others; they will understand.
Enhanced cleaning. Arrange for your cleaning personnel to increase the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting of regularly touched surfaces such as doorknobs, countertops, and keypads. Make available to employees extra cleaning and disinfecting supplies so that they may clean high-touch surfaces at their own work stations or common areas as needed.
Prepare to send home employees who become sick at work. If an employee appears to have symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath) during the work day, send the employee home and tell them to seek medical attention. Provide transportation home if necessary.
Plan for employees who have an infected person at home. Employees may themselves be well, but have someone in their household who is sick. Employees should be instructed to notify their supervisor or HR, who should then consult CDC guidance on determining the risk level posed by their possible exposure, including compliance with CDC-recommended precautions for home care https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/guidance-home-care.html.
Modify policies as needed to reduce disincentives for sick employees to be off work. Consider waiving a doctor’s note for employees reporting off with COVID-19 or other respiratory illness (like the flu). For employees who have exhausted their allotment of sick days or other forms of paid time off, consider allowing them to borrow against next year; if time is to be unpaid, relax rules so that these days off are penalty-free.
Overseas travel. Develop guidelines for international travel by employees, both business and personal, based on CDC’s travel information page https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html. Employers will likely prohibit business travel to countries on the CDC’s Warning Level 3 list. Business travel to CDC Alert Level 2 and Watch Level 1 countries, if not prohibited, should be assessed on a case-by-case basis for business necessity.
II. Planning for a More Severe COVID-19 Outbreak in the United States
CDC and OSHA also recommend that employers develop an infectious disease outbreak response plan for use in the event a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 occurs in the United States. Those plans should address how to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the impact of the virus on your business once your organization has infected employees and/or if your locality is experiencing an outbreak. In addition to the immediate initial strategies discussed above, the outbreak plan should contain the following:
Continue/enhance education and hygiene measures.
Develop communication plan for informing all personnel when positive COVID-19 cases develop within your organization. Caution: do not identify COVID-19 positive individuals.
Enhance communication to all personnel of modifications to paid time off policies.
Prepare for employees to stay home from work and plan ways for essential business functions to continue. Expect and plan for increased absenteeism. Employees may stay home because they are sick, need to care for sick household members, or because schools have been closed and parents need to stay home with their children.
- Cross-train staff to perform essential functions so that the business can continue operating.
- Task business unit leaders/managers/supervisors with identifying key tasks and projects and personnel “back-ups” for those functions within their groups.
- Assess your organization’s essential functions, your reliance on external suppliers (who may be as deeply affected by a widespread outbreak as you), and the extent to which customer demand may be affected by a widespread outbreak.
- Identify mission-critical operations and how to maintain those, including changes to your business practices and suspension of some operations and functions as required. Plan for temporary furlough of personnel as operations narrow.
Vigorously enforce “stay at home” regimen for employees who are sick or have an afflicted person in their household.
Increase/enforce social distancing.
- Cancel non-essential face-to-face meetings.
- Mandate conference calls, Web-based meetings.
- Cancel customer events or other gatherings with customers.
- Cancel non-essential domestic business air travel. Evaluate safety of domestic car travel.
- Spread out workstations or implement split shifts for personnel whose duties can be performed only at your facility.
- Permit/encourage increased work from home.
Search for and purchase proper masks (NIOSH N95) and latex gloves for employees.
Consider conducting active screening of employees when they arrive at work.
- Advise workers to check for any signs of illness before coming to work each day.
- Consider engaging a qualified contractor to conduct temperature checks/other screening measures for all employees as they arrive at work.
- Employees who have symptoms of COVID-19 should be sent home and advised to seek immediate medical attention.
- Actively monitor and follow recommendations of CDC and local public health agencies.
Hopefully, few if any of these enhanced measures will be needed by American employers. Nonetheless, common sense dictates that employers implement the initial strategies to prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19 or any acute respiratory illness, and that they further begin planning for worse and worst-case scenarios. If you have any questions about your business’s response to COVID-19 or an infectious disease outbreak plan, please contact any of the Labor & Employment lawyers at Calfee.