With cases of COVID-19, or novel Coronavirus, at 87 and rising in the United States, communities are bracing for widespread impact.  Here are some issues for consideration in managing wellness (and fear) in the workplace:

Protecting Employees

  • Reduce or cancel non-essential business travel (especially international).  Monitor relevant travel advisories and consider work-from-home arrangements upon return from travel.  Employees may refuse to travel under OSHA  in certain circumstances.
  • Limit attendance at large conferences, if not already canceled.
  • Limit workplace visitors, instead utilizing remote meetings or conference calls, where available.
  • Encourage sick employees to stay home.  California employees may utilize paid sick leave, however, employers may consider advancing or extending paid sick leave or telecommuting arrangements to minimize workplace exposure. Consider implementing temporary policies addressing current workplace needs.
  • Contemplate staffing needs if customer-facing employees do not feeling comfortable reporting to work or become ill.  Remember, on-call time must generally be paid.
  • Provide additional supplies such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers, tissues, antibacterial soap and wipes throughout the workplace.
  • Increase routine cleaning on frequently touched surfaces.
  • Communicate any workplace policy changes and continue to encourage prevention techniques.

Reducing Legal Risk

  • OSHA requires employers to provide employees with a safe working environment and may not retaliate against employees for refusing to work where a reasonable belief of injury or imminent death might occur.  Updated guidance on OSHA and coronavirus can be found here.
  • Remember responsibilities to engage in an interactive dialogue and to reasonably accommodate.
  • Reinforce non-discrimination policies and prohibitions based on national origin and disability.  Employers may also be liable for adverse treatment of an employee based on a perceived disability, making the case for a well-documented interactive dialogue with the employee even more critical.
  • Ensure no retaliation for employees who express protected activity or concerns over health and safety at work.
  • Employers are limited in the ability to ask for private health-related information; information may be requested on a case-by-case basis or to establish a reasonable accommodation. Employees may face delays in obtaining return to work notes from health care providers, so use be prepared for flexibility in enforcement of policies.
  • Employee testing or temperature taking cannot be mandated, but employers can require testing based on reasonable suspicion.

With a swiftly evolving landscape, employers should be assessing all aspects of their work environment, building response teams and communicating with employees as appropriate.  Our team is always here to talk through these novel issues as they arise in real-time.