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What Employees Need to Know About the Coronavirus
The Coronavirus has predominated the news recently due to the concerns of a potential widespread outbreak. Employers are now prompted to consider employee safety and health amidst the plethora of the laws protecting employees.
At this point, little is known about the Coronavirus, how it is contracted, and how it can spread. The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) has released recommended strategies for employers. The importance of proper communication to employees and addressing their concerns cannot be overstated.
According to the CDC, the Coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China. It appears that the virus can spread from humans similar to how a cold or fly may spread. However, there is still uncertainty as to the contagious nature of the virus as there have been reports of people contracting the Coronavirus who have not recently travelled nor been near anyone who was infected with the virus.
Employers should focus on the following considerations to promote safety and health while not running afoul of the laws:
- Recognize the travel restrictions which recently have been recommended by the CDC; at this point, the countries involved in these restrictions are China, South Korea, Italy, Japan, and Iran.
- Consider whether any employees have recently travelled to those areas on business or vacation and whether restrictions on them in the workplace should be considered.
- Recognize that the law does require employers to address the safety and health of their employees; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), for example, recently put out a bulletin addressing employer’s obligations in these circumstances.
- Recognize that the law also requires employers not to discriminate against employees based on, among other classifications, national origin, disability, and perceived disability; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency that administers discrimination claims, has issued guidance on employer preparedness for pandemics;
- For mass layoffs or plant closings due to the Coronavirus, consider the federal or state WARN Act implications and whether the unforeseeable business circumstances exception may apply.
- Consider new policies to address concerns, such as instructing employees to stay home if they display symptoms or require that they get tested, while evaluating such policies against the employer’s existing sick leave and paid time off policies; also consider such options against leave laws such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).
- Of course, employers should consider encouraging employees to follow basic hygiene practices, including frequent hand washing, using hand sanitizers, and going home if they feel sick.
- Consider a working remotely policy if it can be made applicable to the employer’s business; and
- Take caution not to violate employees’ rights through defamatory statements or an invasion of privacy.
The bottom line is that employers must be prepared and have a plan in place to deal with the workplace in the event of a widespread illness. Employers should also consider consulting with counsel to ensure such efforts do not violate employees’ rights under the law.