Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Coronavirus and Your Workplace

Last Friday, the CDC declared the coronavirus a public health emergency and imposed mandatory quarantines on U.S. citizens who have recently visited certain parts of China. So far to date, 12,000 people have reportedly been infected with the disease, with 259 confirmed deaths. The virus’s method of transmission is still unknown.

This is scary stuff. Some employees will undoubtedly be worried about coming to work, afraid that they may catch the virus. What should employers do?

First, reassure nervous employees that very few cases of the virus exist in the United States, and it does not appear to be spreading rapidly. The common flu remains a much more significant health risk than the coronavirus.

Second, tell sick employees to stay home. Coming into work sick is not a sign of one’s hard work and dedication but an irresponsible action that might spread the sickness and harm the office’s productivity. Encouraging sick employees to stay home will ease fears that the sickness will spread in the workplace. If one of your employees does have the coronavirus (or any other illness like a bad case of the flu) be sure to grant any requests for FMLA leave. You can require that the FMLA leave be taken in conjunction with paid sick leave. Remember that an employee is not entitled to FMLA leave to avoid getting sick at work.

Third, require any employee who either has traveled to China in the past month or plans to do so in the upcoming months to inform a supervisor. If the employee becomes sick, make sure that the employee stays home and encourage the employee to see the doctor immediately. I would advise against requiring the employee to see the doctor, as that could be a violation of the ADA, as making disability-related inquiries or requiring medical examinations are generally violations of that law. There are exceptions when the employer can show that the examination is job-related or when the exam is necessary because the employee may pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

Fourth, limit your employees’ travel to China until the spread of the virus is contained. Requiring employees to travel to China could be a violation of OSHA regulations. It also will likely not be positive for employee morale to require travel to China.

Fifth, in the unlikely event that one of your employees has the coronavirus, do not allow the employee to come into the workplace. Allowing the employee to come to work would likely be a violation of OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide a workplace free from dangerous hazards. If an employee becomes infected with the coronavirus at your workplace, you must document that. Use OSHA Form 300 to do that.

You should have a sick leave provision in your personnel policies or employee handbooks that explains what happens when an employee contracts a serious communicable illness. Feel free to contact me if you would like me to include this in your personnel policy or handbook.