With almost 650 confirmed cases of coronavirus across the U.S., KJK Labor & Employment attorneys Rob Gilmore and Lyndsay Ross outline six steps all employers should take to protect themselves and keep employees safe and happy.
The coronavirus (or COVID-19) has created widespread panic across the world and in the United States. As of this article, there are approximately 113,000 cases confirmed globally. The numbers are starting to rise specifically in the United States: with 36 states and the District of Columbia reporting, 647 cases have so far been confirmed.
With the sudden spike in coronavirus cases, Americans need to begin taking basic precautions. Employers would be wise to do the same. The largest international companies are already beginning to take action: Nike temporarily closed its world headquarters in Oregon to “deep clean” its campus following the first death in the United States from the coronavirus, also in Oregon. Amazon has restricted employee travel to and from China, and any employee who must travel for work must then work from home for two weeks.
However, it is not just corporate conglomerates who should take action. All employers, whether they employ thousands, dozens or only a few employees, have statutory, common law and economic (or just good sense) responsibilities to provide a safe and healthy workspace. Knowing that coronavirus is likely to spread in the United States, employers should take the following steps as soon as practical:
- If an employee is sick, send them home: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that employers “actively encourage” sick employees to stay home. Given that the virus’s presence in the U.S. is relatively new and testing kits are few and far between, employers should consider waiving any requirement that an illness be corroborated with a doctor’s note. Employers should remain cognizant of their duty to inform employees of their eligibility status under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as well as their other duties under state sick leave laws.
- Consider some restrictions: For employers where travel is routine, be aware that the State Department has issued a Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory. An unrelenting employer who tries to force business as usual and require travel could subject themselves to claims under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On the other hand, employers should know that they may require an employee with flu-like symptoms to go home without running afoul of the ADA.
- Play nice and be reasonable: The coronavirus will pass, but memories of an employer who failed to protect its workers for the sake of business will not. Allowing under-the-weather employees to stay home admittedly may have negative short-term effects on productivity. However, ignoring employee concerns and fostering low office morale could be just as damaging. To avoid hits to productivity beyond the duration of any illness in the workplace, an employer should be receptive to employee feedback and reasonable in its actions. An employer should also offer basic hygiene products, and take a cue from Nike and consider an office spring cleaning.
Employers should also understand the possibility that they may need to implement long-term changes should the coronavirus continue for a number of months. To that end, employers should contemplate the following long-term steps:
- Revise your sick leave policy: Employers should consider developing (or offering in the first place) a more flexible sick leave policy. Consider extending the hours or days of sick leave given to employees, as well as the qualifications for sick leave, understanding that employees may have a sick child or relative at home. Further, make sure your policy at least meets state minimum requirements, if applicable.
- Develop an infectious disease management plan: Beyond just a standard sick leave policy, an infectious disease management plan is specific to employee needs during an infectious disease outbreak. Such a plan should provide policies regarding general workplace health and safety guidelines, travel restrictions if applicable, and what employees should do in the event of a facility shutdown. Given the number of infectious diseases that have arisen in the past decade, including H1N1, Ebola and now COVID-19, employers would be wise to prepare for the future.
- Contemplate the possibility of working remotely: Like Amazon and Facebook, consider allowing employees to work from home. Besides minimizing risk to others, remote work allows productivity levels to at least surpass those offered by sick employees.
To protect themselves until the coronavirus is under control and to keep their employees happy and safe, employers should consider taking the above steps. If you have more questions about the proper response to employment issues arising from the coronavirus, contact Rob Gilmore at 216.736.7240 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Lyndsay Ross at 216.736.7201 or email@example.com.
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