COVID-19 and Your Workforce
As the number of reported cases of COVID-19 continues to rise, employers are increasingly confronted with the possibility of an outbreak in the workplace. We are reviewing the Employer’s Guide to COVID-19, which you can download here. The first section is COVID-19 and your workforce.
Employers are obligated to maintain a safe and healthy work environment for their employees, but are also subject to a number of legal requirements protecting workers, for instance, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). This section of the toolkit provides a summary of the actions employers should take when confronted with COVID-19 and your workforce.
What is COVID-19, and How Does It Spread?
The COVID-19 is a disease caused by a member of the coronavirus family that is a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, runny nose, cough and trouble breathing. Most people develop only mild symptoms. But some, usually people with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal. The incubation period for COVID-19 is from two to 14 days.
Initially detected in Wuhan, China in late 2019, the first case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported on January 21, 2020. Since then, the disease has spread throughout the continental United States.
The available information about how the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads is largely based on what is known about similar coronaviruses. COVID-19 is a new disease, and there is more to learn about its transmission, the severity of illness it causes, and to what extent it may spread in the United States.
COVID-19 and Your Workforce
According to the CDC, the virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person, between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet) or through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It may also be possible for a person to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has been contaminated with the virus and then touching his or her own mouth, nose, or eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic. Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms, and there have been reports of this occurring, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
Disease Prevention in the Workplace
Whenever a communicable disease outbreak is possible, employers may need to take precautions to keep the disease from spreading through the workplace. It is recommended that employers establish a written policy and response plan that covers communicable diseases readily transmitted in the workplace.
Employers can require employees to stay home from work if they have signs or symptoms of a communicable disease that poses a credible threat of transmission in the workplace, or if they have traveled to high-risk geographic areas, such as those with widespread or sustained community transmission of the illness. When possible, employers can consider allowing employees to work remotely. Employers may require employees to provide medical documentation that they can return to work.
Employers can consider canceling business travel to affected geographic areas and may request that employees notify them if they are traveling to these areas for personal reasons. Employees who travel to China should be informed that they may be quarantined or otherwise required to stay away from work until they can provide medical documentation that they are free of symptoms.
There are several legal considerations that employers should keep in mind when implementing and administering a communicable illness policy. These considerations are addressed in the following sections.
Responding to an Employee’s Positive Coronavirus Test
As the number of COVID-19 cases grows daily, employers across the country are dealing with the difficult situation of responding to an employee’s positive COVID-19 test.
Employers are responsible for handling the situation swiftly to protect the health of other employees while preserving the affected employee’s confidentiality. In addition to notifying the company and its customers, employers must also disinfect the office and evaluate next steps.
Responding to an Employee
When an employee notifies you that he or she is sick with COVID-19, you should respond calmly and empathetically. In these uncertain times, it can be easy to overreact, but you need to ensure that the infected employee is treated with compassion. Reassure the employee that their identity will remain confidential, and be sure to help them coordinate taking leave or paid time off until they’ve recovered.
You will also need to ask the employee some potentially difficult questions, including whom the employee has been in contact with in the last two weeks. Obtaining this information is essential so that you can directly notify customers and other employees that they may have been directly exposed to COVID-19.
Notifying Employees and Customers
Without disclosing the identity of the infected employee, you need to notify their co-workers, customers and the rest of the company.
Directly notify any co-workers or customers whom the ill employee had been in contact with. Be sure to remain calm and let them know that someone they have been in contact with or has been in their physical work area has tested positive for COVID-19. Recommend that they should self-quarantine for the next 14 days and monitor themselves for the symptoms of COVID-19. If feasible, allow eligible employees to work from home during this time.
Be sure to notify the rest of the company by email or letter that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19. Remember to keep the employee’s identity protected and be transparent about your response. The communication should include what steps your company will be taking to protect the health of other employees. If you plan on having employees work from home for the next 14 days or closing the office, this information should be disclosed in the communication.
Disinfecting the Office
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 can remain on hard surfaces for up to 12 hours, creating a potential risk of transmission. Depending on the size of your organization, you may want to consider closing the office for a few days so that it can be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. All surfaces that the infected employee may have touched should be disinfected, as well as other high-touch surfaces, which include countertops, cabinets, doorknobs, handles and chairs.
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