On March 3, 2020, Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts to address the COVID-19 outbreak. President Donald J. Trump addressed the country on March 11, 2020, to announce some measures the United States would be taking, mostly to address the spread of COVID-19. As concerns about the potential spread of the virus deepen and daily counts of diagnosed COVID-19 cases increase, employers inundated with sometimes contradictory information from a multitude of sources should focus on the following three key procedures.
PLEASE NOTE: This advisory pertains to non-health care employers. The CDC has issued guidance specific to healthcare facilities, available here.
1. Implement Social Distancing, Where Possible.
Employers should implement the following strategies that have been recommended by the CDC now to protect their workforce:
- Require sick employees to stay home: Employees who show signs of acute respiratory illness (whether or not the illness is caused by COVID-19) should be told to stay home until they are fever free (100.4° F [37.8° C] or greater if using an oral thermometer) for at least 24 hours without the use of any fever-reducing medicines. In Massachusetts, although employers may not force employees to use more earned sick time than is necessary, employers may still require employees to stay home without having the employees use earned sick time.
- Separate sick employees: Employers should designate an area where an employee who appears to be sick or becomes sick while at work can be quickly and physically separated from other employees and immediately sent home.
- Emphasize respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees: Remind employees (including via posters, email reminders, etc.) of the importance of practicing good hygiene etiquette and provide tissues and alcohol-based hand sanitizer in various locations. Despite what appears to be a shortage of commercially available hand sanitizers and disinfectants, employers should try to avoid using home-made remedies, as they may not be effective and could even be unsafe.
- Perform routine environmental cleaning: Employers should routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces (such as doorknobs, counters, etc.). Employers should also request that commercial landlords increase the frequency, and in some cases, the level of cleaning in common areas.
- Restrict travel: Employers should limit business-related travel when possible. Employers should also request that their employees keep them informed of upcoming travel plans. If the employee becomes sick while traveling, they should contact their health care provider immediately to receive the proper care and advice (if traveling internationally, employees should bring the appropriate contact information with them). The employee should also notify the employer of the illness and remain out of the workplace consistent with company policy.
- Additional measures: The CDC also recommends that employees who are well but are caring for or live with a family member who is sick with COVID-19 notify their supervisor and consult CDC or their local public health agency for guidance on how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure. The CDC also recommends that employers inform their workforce of a possible exposure to COVID-19. Depending on the level of risk, employers may require or encourage such employees to stay out of work.
For those employees whose jobs are not conducive to working remotely, employers should consider whether or not to compensate employees during a quarantine or other out of work period related to containing the Coronavirus’ spread. For employers with paid sick time policies, or other accrued compensated leave policies, compensation for absences of employees with COVID-19 and taking care of family members with COVID-19 may already be addressed. For those who are not sick or taking care of sick family members and are self-quarantined or are required by the employer to remain out of work for reasons related to COVID-19 other than actual sickness, employers may consider loosening the criteria for using accrued paid sick time or other accrued paid time to enable employees to be paid for such absences. Although in most cases, an employee contracting COVID-19 at work will not qualify for workers’ compensation benefits, employers should consult with their workers’ compensation carrier to see if the employee may qualify for workers’ compensation benefits under certain circumstances.
3. Prepare an Emergency Response Plan for a Workplace Outbreak.
As the situation continues to evolve, employers should keep informed of the latest developments and recommended strategies published by the CDC. See the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Business and Employers.
In light of the increasing number of those potentially affected by COVID-19, employers should evaluate their ability to move operations online. This would include, among other steps:
- Reviewing existing IT structure and capabilities to determine the extent to which (and how quickly) the organization could transition the workforce to working remotely.
- Ensuring integrity of data security for remote working situations.
- Reviewing each position and determining whether the work may be performed from home.
- If a job cannot be performed from home, in addition to the steps above, consider offering alternative transportation options to employees who need to commute to work.
- If certain functions must be performed on-site, such as answering phones or opening mail, determine how these tasks will continue to be fulfilled (and by whom), while the remainder of the workforce works virtually.
Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) is novel, the issues it raises are not unique to this particular disease. Therefore, employers would be well-advised to develop a preparedness plan that addresses any potential pandemic or other health-related emergency.
Please contact the employment attorneys at Casner & Edwards for more information.