By: Eric J. Uhl
As employers, it’s important to provide your employees with accurate and updated information regarding the virus identified as the “coronavirus disease 2019,” abbreviated as “COVID-19,” to help keep them informed and let them know what steps they should take to minimize the risks of transmission and what steps management is taking in the event the virus affects or threatens to affect operations. Keep your employees updated to minimize any concerns and avoid workplace disruptions, and let them know that you will continue to monitor the outbreak and evaluate any steps that need to be taken.
Here is some important information about COVID-19 and steps you can take to address the problem:
Current and Updated Information about COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly updates its website and provides information about COVID-19, including information about how it is spread, prevention tips, and other helpful information. The CDC also provides a helpful factsheet to answer common questions. For more information, see: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.
The Maine CDC also provides information about the virus and preventive measures. See: https://www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/infectious-disease/epi/airborne/coronavirus.shtml.
Guidance for Employers. The CDC also offers interim guidance for employers, including recommended strategies. See: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-business-response.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fspecific-groups%2Fguidance-business-response.html.
At this point, the CDC is recommending that employers take these steps:
- Actively encourage sick employees to stay at home:
- Employees with symptoms should stay at home until they free of fever and other symptoms for at least 24 hours
- Make sure sick leave policies are flexible and employees are aware of the policies
- Suspend requirement that sick employees provide a doctor’s note if necessary due to healthcare offices being too busy
- Allow employees to stay at home to care for a sick family member
- Separate sick employees
- If employees appear to have respiratory illness symptoms, cough, fever, shortness of breath, they should be separated from other employees and sent home immediately. Remind sick employees to cover their noses and moths with a tissue when coughing/sneezing, or at least use an elbow and not a hand
- Emphasize staying at home if sick, respiratory and hand hygiene rules
- Place posters that encourage staying at home when sick and cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene
- Provide tissues and no-touch trash receptacles
- Instruct employees to clean their hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Provide soap/water and hand sanitizers in the workplace.
- Perform routine environmental cleaning
- Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs, using standard cleaning agents.
- No additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended at this time.
- Provide disposable wipes to employees can clean surfaces before each use.
- Advise employees to take certain steps before traveling
- Give access to the CDC’s traveler health notices for the latest guidance
- Advise employees to check for symptoms of respiratory illness before traveling
- Ensure employees who become sick while traveling understand they should notify their supervisor and call a healthcare provider for advice
- Additional measures
- Employees who are well but have a sick family member at home with respiratory illness should notify their supervisor and refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment for potential exposure
- If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform employees of their potential exposure to COVID-19 but maintain confidentiality.
Prevention through Hygiene and Sanitation. According to the CDC, COVID-19 is spread primarily from person-to-person contact, between people in close contact and when a person coughs or sneezes. It is also possible that a person can contract the virus through contact with a surface or object with the virus and then touch his or her mouth, nose, or eyes. Currently, there is no vaccine available to prevent the coronavirus disease. However, according to the CDC, here are everyday actions that can help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases such as COVID-19:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask if you are sick:
- CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
- Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
- If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
Symptoms. People with COVID-19 have reported symptoms that range from mild to severe. Symptoms, which may appear from 2 to 14 days after exposure, include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.
What to do if an employee is sick. If an employee has any possible COVID-19 symptoms, or if the employee has been in contact with anyone with the symptoms, the CDC recommends requiring the employee to stay home until the employee has been cleared for return to work and is free of any fever. If employees appear to have respiratory illness symptoms upon arriving to work or if they become sick during the day, the CDC recommends sending the employee home. Remember to review your applicable leave policies regarding available leave. Depending on the circumstances, employees may qualify for FMLA leave, sick leave, personal leave, PTO, short term disability, or other available leave. The CDC encourages employers to be flexible with their leave policies to make sure employees are not penalized for staying at home if they have any relevant symptoms or have been in contact with anyone with the symptoms. In addition, depending on an employee’s position and job responsibilities, it may be possible to arrange for alternative or remote work opportunities.
Travel. The U.S. government has placed a moratorium and travel restrictions on foreign nationals and citizens who visited China within the 14 days. In addition, the U.S. Department of State has issued advisories on travel to certain countries experiencing outbreaks, ranging from Do Not Travel to Exercise Increased Caution, and the CDC has recommended that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, and Japan. Most recently, the administration announced new travel restrictions on travelers returning from Europe. The list of travel restrictions is updated regularly, and anyone anticipating travel outside the county should review the applicable restrictions. All employees should be urged to comply with applicable travel restrictions and recommendations.
Payment for Employees on Leave. Employers’ leave policies and paid leave policies generally still apply. Generally, unless a paid leave policy applies, employers do not have to pay non-exempt employees for time that they are out on leave and not actually performing work. Non-exempt employees are employees who are covered by the minimum wage and overtime rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act or state wage and hour laws. However, the rules are different for exempt employees (salaried employees not covered by the minimum wage and overtime laws). Generally, exempt employees must be paid for any work week in which they perform work except for absences of one or more full days for personal reasons or absences due to sickness after exhaustion of paid leave under a qualifying sick leave policy. Employers are permitted to require employees to stay at home, but whether or not the employer will have to pay an employee who is told not to report to work depends on the circumstances, applicable policies, and whether the employee is exempt or non-exempt. Wage and hour rules can be complicated. Please contact me if you have any questions regarding payment issues or any other issues raised in this alert. Note also that you may want to relax your unpaid time off rules to some degree, so long as any modification is applied equally.
Disclaimer: The content provided in this blog is for general informational purposes only. The blog posts do not, and are not intended to, constitute legal advice and cannot and should not be relied upon by any person or entity as legal advice. Please contact the authors with any questions you may have. Please also note that submitting a comment or question does not create an attorney-client relationship between our firm and you.