The Coronavirus: The Mitigating Actions Employers Should Be Taking
As the 2019 coronavirus now affects individuals across the United States, employers are well advised to take immediate steps to minimize risk of transmission and limit employee fears regarding the 2019 coronavirus. As of March 2, 2020, the 2019 coronavirus has been detected in 62 countries. Although China remains the most heavily affected, the World Health Organization (WHO) is also closely monitoring Japan, Italy, Iran, and South Korea. U.S. health officials have identified over 100 cases of the 2019 coronavirus in the United States spanning fifteen states, including Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In responding to the 2019 coronavirus, employers should consider implementing a written communicable illness policy, and are further advised to take the following recommended steps to help mitigate the risks associated with the disease:
1. Be Informed
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly updates its website as more information becomes available about the 2019 coronavirus in the United States. This is the best source for current and accurate information for employers. The CDC has also developed a helpful factsheet to answer common questions about the 2019 coronavirus. Applicable state agencies (e.g., ME CDC) are also good resources for information about the 2019 coronavirus and for preventive measures employers should take. Finally, employers should regularly monitor the World Health Organization, as well as other reputable global, national, state and local public health agencies.
2. Follow Any Existing Relevant Policies And Implement Communicable Illness Policy
Employers should follow any existing policies they have in place related to communicable illnesses, public health emergencies, leaves of absence, accommodations or any other relevant subject matter. If an employer does not have such policies, they should work with legal counsel to develop them. Employers should review and follow pertinent medical and sick leave policies, and should encourage employees to work from home if the employees are ill or are experiencing any symptoms of illness. Employers should also advise those employees on applicable preventive measures (e.g., washing hands thoroughly with soap and water, covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, etc.). If an employer is not sure whether to force an employee to stay home due to illness or take an involuntary leave due to illness, the employer should consult with legal counsel.
3. Be Clear And Communicative With Employees
Employers should keep employees updated on how the employer is approaching the coronavirus and reiterate any existing public health/emergency, medical leave, and sick leave policies in place. Remind employees that their health and safety is a top priority for the employer. If an employer has employees who regularly travel to or from the above-referenced high-risk countries and/or have employees that have come in close contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the coronavirus or are being evaluated for the coronavirus, require these employees to work from home for 14 calendar days—which is the estimated length of suspected incubation and transmission period of the coronavirus.
4. Continue To Keep Any Employee Medical Information Confidential
Employers should continue to be cognizant of their legal obligations to employees under the ADA, OSHA, HIPAA, and any applicable state law counterparts. This means treating as confidential any documents or communications relating to an employee’s medical information and storing those documents in a secure, private location separate from the employee’s personnel file. Employers should also not disclose or otherwise identify to other employees why an employee may be working from home.
5. Key Takeaways
The 2019 coronavirus presents a variety of practical and legal issues for employers. However, employers can better position themselves in responding to the 2019 coronavirus if they (i) closely monitor updates from public health authorities, (ii) clearly communicate relevant policies and any precautionary measures being taken to employees, which may include implementing a written communicable illness policy, (iii) continue to abide by all applicable legal obligations, and (iv) seek legal counsel when necessary.