With more cases of the coronavirus being reported worldwide daily, employers are being advised to prepare a response in case there's evidence of an outbreak in the U.S.
Although some U.S. workers could be at risk, the current threat from the virus known as COVID-19 is minimal, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"For the general American public, such as workers in non-healthcare settings and where it is unlikely that work tasks create an increased risk of exposures to COVID-19, the immediate health risk is considered low," the agency said in a statement.
But in case of an outbreak, employers must think about how best to curtail the spread of this acute respiratory illness and lower its impact on the workplace.
Employers should define objectives and communicate them to employees.
These objectives should include:
- Reducing transmission among your staff
- Protecting people who have higher risk for adverse health complications
- Maintaining business operations
- Minimizing negative impacts on other entities in your supply chain
Disease Management Plan
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, employers should review their infectious-disease management plans—or create one if none exists.
SHRM advises employers to take a common-sense approach, such as issuing travel restrictions to countries where the virus originated and has spiked, including China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy.
But a more controversial step—telling people returning from those regions to stay away from work for 14 days—might not be enough to stem the virus' spread, according to SHRM.
While many multinational companies have an infectious-disease management plan, the majority do not, SHRM says.
Companies can consider forming an emergency team to create this plan. The team should include a disease coordinator and representatives from your HR, legal, and information technology departments.
That plan should address workplace precautions, employee travel restrictions, provisions for returning stranded travelers, required medical check-ups, reporting to public health authorities, potential quarantine or isolation, and plant shutdowns.
Lessen the Impact
Employers should prepare for high employee absences, illness among employee family members, and possible school closings or early dismissals due to high levels of the illness.
To lessen the impact of the spread of COVID-19, the CDC says employers should:
- Implement plans to continue your essential business functions in case of higher than normal absenteeism
- Cross-train your people to perform key functions so your workplace can operate even if essential performers are absent
- Be prepared to change your businesses practices to maintain critical operations
Even if COVID-19 does not become a pandemic, employers are advised to take the same precautions they should be taking now during flu season.
These include encouraging sick workers to stay home, ensuring employees understand your sick-leave policy, and not requiring workers out sick with acute respiratory illness to provide a doctor’s note.
Protect Worker Rights
Employers responding to the illness must be cautious not to violate their workers' civil rights or the Americans With Disability Act, New Haven attorneys John Letizia and Phyllis Pari warn.
The attorneys, from the New Haven firm of Letizia, Ambrose & Falls, note widespread reports of discrimination against Asian employees and businesses across the country due to misconceptions over COVID-19.
Letizia and Pari note that while a person with COVID-19 is not considered disabled, employers should still follow the ADA.
"Many violations occurred under the ADA and similar laws in the late 1980s when employers, patients, and customers perceived an employee to have AIDS based solely on their sexual orientation," the attorneys wrote in a piece examining workplace challenges from COVID-19.
They strongly advise against employment decisions that are targeted only toward employees of certain races, ethnicities, or national origins.
"Discharging an employee who the employer believes, without hard evidence, was exposed to the coronavirus could result in costly litigation," Letizia and Pari wrote.
"And complaints by an employee regarding a patient, customer or vendor who has discriminated against them or declined to interact with them because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin must be addressed promptly."
Further, they note, avoiding patients, clients, and customers of certain races, ethnicities or national origins could violate provider agreements and insurance contracts, and lead to expensive litigation.
If an employer has a good factual reason to believe a worker is infected but the worker wants to stay on the job, the employer may allow the employee to work from home or remain there on forced paid leave.
Don't forget to consider the possibility that workers absent due to their own illness or to provide care for a family member with a serious health condition may be entitled to job protected leave under the FMLA.
"Finally, when it is time for the employee to return to work, the employer may be able require the employee to provide a fitness for duty evaluation release from an appropriate physician under the appropriate circumstances and consistent with ADA requirements," they note.