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Coronavirus: How Can Employers Manage This Fast-Changing Situation?

The subject on top of everyone’s mind right now is the coronavirus. What is happening, what does it mean for employers, how bad is it going to get?

While no one has all the answers at this point, there are things that employers can do and should be thinking about to protect their employees and their businesses. First and foremost – don’t panic!

What to Know

Check resources regularly for updates and information on the virus, because things are changing quickly around the world; this includes, but is not limited to, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and Johns Hopkins University.

Preventative Measures

There are several things that employers can do to be prepared and reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

  • Communicate With Employees

    Let employees know that their safety is your top priority. Without communication from employers, employees can become alarmed about their surroundings and coworkers. Let them know you are taking steps to ensure a safe work environment and that you will be communicating with them regularly as things change.

  • Implement Common-Sense Guidelines for Employees

    Tell employees to wash hands frequently, cough or sneeze into elbows, self-quarantine at home if having cold symptoms, avoid shaking hands (jazz hands is sweeping the nation), etc. Clean surfaces in your workplace daily (e.g., counters, tabletops, bathroom fixtures, door handles, workstations, keyboards, phones, etc.), more frequently if possible. Consider implementing remote work assignments or upgrade your infrastructure to be able to allow employees to do so. For job positions that require in-person attendance, consider allowing periodic breaks for hand washing, provide hand sanitizer throughout the workplace, determine if providing gloves or other personal protective equipment would be appropriate for your workplace, etc.

  • Reduce Non-Essential Travel

    Employers should be reviewing travel schedules and determine if alternative arrangements can be made for meetings, e.g., Zoom, Skype, Facetime, etc. If requiring travel for work, employers should consider allowing employees to work from home upon return or providing paid leave to allow the employee to self-quarantine following travel. Also, consider restricting in-person interaction with clients and customers following travel, or if exhibiting symptoms of illness.

  • Remind Employees of Your Policy Against Discrimination and Harassment

    Unfortunately, there are numerous reports of paranoia occurring over the spread of the virus. Remind employees that they must strictly adhere to your company’s policy against discrimination and harassment. Identification with a particular race, national origin, or ancestry does not mean that an individual is infected with or carrying the virus. Communicate with managers and supervisors on their obligations to adhere to company policy and be consistent in decisions affecting the terms and conditions of employment of workers.

Review Each Individual’s Situation on a Case-By-Case Basis

If employees get sick, what can, or should employers do? Each employee situation will be different and should be reviewed based on the circumstances of each case. Generally, allow employees to use their paid sick leave and/or paid time off to recover from their illness. Be mindful of applicable leave laws like the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ACA), and state equivalents, and their eligibility requirements and protections. Consider sending workers home if they are exhibiting symptoms of contagious illness. Additionally, if an individual becomes ill through work activities (e.g., required travel, contact with coworkers, etc.), they may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits; communicate with your workers’ compensation provider to ensure compliance. When in doubt about what to do, review the situation with your legal counsel.

Keep Employee Medical Information Private

Employers should securely store employee medical documentation in files separate from their personnel files. If employees are on leave due to illness, do not share the reason for leave with other employees beyond a need-to-know basis.

Start planning now for how your business can navigate the effects of the coronavirus. Successful employers encourage a workplace culture of caring, kindness, and safety. Stay informed and prepare for upcoming changes.

Learn more about practical action steps to maintain compliance and keep your workforce healthy and safe: Coronavirus: Prevention and Compliance Considerations for Employers.