In January, the World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” For the general American public, such as workers in non-healthcare settings, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low and will continue to be monitored by the CDC. Visit FAQs from the Centers for Disease Control for more information about COVID-19.
This situation has given employers many questions about what to expect. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, along with state and local laws, states that an employer has a general duty to provide a working environment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
The CDC has posted some guidance for employers to help prevent workplace exposures in non-healthcare settings. The following condensed recommendations are taken from the interim guidance found on the CDC website.
1. Actively encourage sick employees to stay home. Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever, signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines.
2. Separate sick employees. The CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms, such as cough or shortness of breath, upon arrival to work or who become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and sent home immediately. Sick employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available).
3. Emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette, and hand hygiene. Place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance to your workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen. Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.
4. Perform routine environmental cleaning. Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas, and follow the directions on the label.
5. Advise employees to take certain steps before traveling. This could include checking Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest guidance, and other information that is available on the CDC’s website.
6. Take additional measures as needed. Employees who are well should be instructed to notify their supervisors if they have family members with COVID-19 and to refer to CDC guidance on conducting a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
The Family and Medical Leave Act allows an employee to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave due to his or her own “serious health condition” or that of a spouse, parent or child. It is almost certain that COVID-19 would be considered a “serious health condition” qualifying the employee for FMLA leave if the employer is covered and the employee is eligible. Employers may also be required to comply with state or local medical leave laws.
If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, or other contagious illness, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA also prohibits employers from requiring current employees to undergo medical examinations unless the examinations are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” However, ADA does give employers the ability to assess whether an employee is a “direct threat” thus giving them permission to send the infected employee for a medical assessment to determine the risk to other employees and how best to accommodate the employee who is ill.
Local conditions will influence the decisions that public health officials make regarding community-level strategies; employers should take the time now to learn about plans in place in each community where they have a business and consider canceling non-essential business travel to additional countries per travel guidance on the CDC website.
The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas has set up a COVID-19 Coronavirus Resource Page to help businesses and workers deal with this emerging public health issue.
As the COVID-19 outbreak evolves, employers should stay informed of the latest CDC guidance and consult with qualified employment counsel. If you have any questions or need guidance on planning for or responding to COVID-19, you may contact Jenny Holt Teeter or Brianna C. Cook