As the 2019 Novel Coronavirus continues its global spread, businesses in the U.S. would be prudent to prepare for its impact on the workforce and workplace. The CDC and OSHA have issued interim guidance for employers to plan and respond to coronavirus. As the adage goes, when it comes to protecting your employees and business, the best defense is a good offense. Smart HR has created a readiness checklist of items you can do now to mitigate the impact coronavirus will have on your company’s operations.
✓ Prepare but don’t panic. While it may be hard given the constant barrage of bad news from the media, it is important to maintain perspective. A large study of 72,000 confirmed COVID-19 patients in China found that 81% of cases were mild, another 14% were severe and 5% were critical. Overall, the death rate was 2.3%. For Chinese patients whose symptoms started after February 1st, the death rate is 0.7%. For comparison, the U.S. death rate from 2019-20’s annual flu outbreak is between .06% to 0.1%. The virus is thought to be less lethal than both SARS and MERS, the last zoonotic coronavirus to infect humans, in 2012.
Start your preparedness emotionally. Fear of the unknown has likely spurred an exaggerated emotional response in many leading to panic in some. David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, stated the very newness of this virus makes it scarier, because we don’t feel as sure that we can protect ourselves against it. Ropeik states, “This (the coronavirus) will spread here and everywhere, but be effectively the same as kind of a bad flu season,” or so it appears at this point. “And we’ve experienced those, and we’ve lived through those.” Some liken sufficient preparations to those done before a major snowstorm that closes schools and disrupts everyday operations for an extended period of time. In the event of a major coronavirus outbreak, it is recommended you have essential medicines, personal items, food and water for you and your family to last for two – three weeks.
✓ Review and amend, as necessary, corporate policies. You should prepare for a workforce needing and/or asking for more leave. You may need to implement temporary changes to your existing leave, emergency preparedness, short- and long-term disability, telecommuting and business travel policies. The CDC has recommended employers establish “nonpunitive” policies that encourage sick or symptomatic employees to stay at home.
Regarding your leave policies, here are some important considerations in the event an employee goes on leave due to a quarantine period, or because they have contracted coronavirus:
- You may be required to pay the employee if he/she is subject to a contract or collective bargaining agreement that requires pay when employees go on work-required leave.
- In the absence of a contract, the FLSA states hourly (non-exempt) employees must be paid only for time they work. Salaried (exempt) employees do not have to be paid if they are sent home for an entire workweek. However, exempt employees who work for part of the workweek, in most cases, must be paid for the entire week.
- If employees are seriously ill or take a while to recover, or have a family member who is seriously ill, they may be entitled to unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. The employee would be entitled to job reinstatement as well.
- Executive Order 13706 requires federal contractors and subcontractors to provide paid sick leave.
- About a dozen states (including Maryland) and Washington, D.C. and some cities such as New York City, have mandated, paid sick leave for many workers including those working part-time.
- Employees could be eligible for short-term disability benefits depending on the company’s insurance provider or the state’s requirements.
- If the illness is work-related, perhaps contracted on business travel, the employee may be entitled to workers’ compensation insurance.
- Will you pay employees to stay home, even if they have exhausted their PTO banks?
- Will you allow employees needing/requesting to stay home to acquire a negative PTO bank if necessary?
- Will you allow employees to donate leave to coworkers who have exhausted their PTO banks?
✓ Consider flexible work arrangements (FWA). This is a good time to determine whether your company would benefit from FWAs, either temporarily or as a normal course of business. It really shouldn’t matter whether employees work from home or in the office as long as their work is being delivered. Technological advancements and virtual platforms, such as Skype, allow day-to-day operations to continue when employees are not in proximity to each other. See Smart HR’s Flexible Work Arrangements blog for more information and ideas on how to implement FWAs.
✓ Understand ADA implications. An employee with coronavirus may meet the definition of a “qualified individual with a disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and its state equivalents, requiring covered employers to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine if leave or another reasonable accommodation is required. Also important to note:
- During a global health emergency, as recently declared by the World Health Organization (WHO), employees can be required to be medically examined to determine if they have contracted the disease when an employer has a reasonable belief that employees will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition. WHO raised its risk assessment of the coronavirus to its highest level on February 28, 2020.
- Employees who have contracted the virus must be treated the same as noninfected employees, as long as the infected employees can perform their essential job functions.
- Employers may, and should, send employees home if they exhibit potential symptoms of coronavirus infection at work even if this is against the employee’s wishes. Employees can be required to stay home on leave until released by a doctor to return to work.
- Employers may be obligated to accommodate an asymptomatic employee who has a public-facing job requesting to work from home for fear of contracting coronavirus. A public-facing job that may require an accommodation might be an airport employee who could potentially be exposed to the coronavirus by individuals returning from China. It is recommended such employees not be disciplined for refusing to work if they believe that there is a risk of infection, because making such a complaint may be a protected activity. If the employer can establish that there is no basis for any exposure to the disease, the employee does not have to be paid during the time period the employee refuses to work.
- Depending on how serious the outbreak becomes, employers could be allowed to measure workers’ temperatures, which under ordinary conditions would be considered a medical exam and thus not allowed.
- If an employee is confirmed to have the COVID-19 infection, the CDC recommends that employers inform co-workers of potential exposure without disclosing the infected employee’s name.
✓ Stay informed. Companies should track the CDC Travel Health Notices and the State Department Travel Advisories to determine what business travel should be canceled or postponed. Employers should also monitor their state and city health agencies and government websites for information about more localized considerations regarding coronavirus.
✓ Inform employees about how best to avoid infection. There is a lot of misinformation about coronavirus out there. Due to the belief that wearing surgical masks can prevent one from getting the coronavirus, there has been a rush on masks causing a worldwide shortage, price gouging and the proliferation of counterfeit products. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently implored the public to stop purchasing the masks stating in a tweet, “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” Again, the CDC is a reliable resource for prevention information.
✓ Ensure the presence of a reliable, real-time communication channel. The most current, reliable information is worthless without a means to disseminate it to your employees. During this outbreak and others that will follow, employees need to receive timely notifications about changes to company policies, mandated quarantines, infected co-workers and other emergency preparedness information. Consider disseminating information using hotlines, websites, email and text messages alert systems.
✓ Assess whether to cancel or postpone upcoming meetings and conferences. Facebook, Cisco and Workday are among many large companies that have cancelled upcoming conferences. Others are moving ahead with planned conferences but ensuring plenty of hand sanitizer is present and some have even labelled conferences “handshake-free.”
✓ Equip supervisors to responsibly handle the situation. Supervisors should have up-to-date, reliable information concerning infection control and company policies and know who to contact in the company and within local public health agencies to report exposures and infections. It may be necessary to cross-train essential management and leadership personnel so the workplace can continue to operate if key staff members are absent.
✓ Know your OSHA obligations. OSHA has provided extensive information on coronavirus in the workplace. The OSHA General Duty Clause requires employers to furnish to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” To that end:
- Employers can provide hand sanitizers and disposable surface wipes and should be vigilant in keeping work and eating surfaces clean.
- OSHA requires that certain employers keep a record of certain work-related illness and injuries on an OSHA Form 300 log. OSHA has deemed the 2019 Novel Coronavirus a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job.
- Some OSHA standards that apply to preventing occupational exposure to COVID-19 also require employers to train workers on elements of infection prevention.
- Employers can close the workplace and ask staff to remain home if it is reasonably concluded an infectious disease present in the workplace is causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
✓Be consistent and equitable in all employment practices. As is the case with all employment actions, consistency is key to avoiding any claims of discrimination. All policies and practices addressing coronavirus, or any other communicable disease, should be applied equally to all employees to ensure no protected employee class is disproportionately affected. For example, if an employer implements a policy concerning overseas travel, it must apply to all employees and not to just those of a particular race, ethnicity, nationality or origin.
Smart HR Can Help During Times of Crisis
Smart HR consultants have the knowledge and expertise acquired from many years working with clients like you to serve as a resource during times of crisis. The coronavirus outbreak has not, thankfully, reached that level of severity in the U.S. However, now is the time to prepare to ensure your company is ready should the outbreak become a pandemic. The precautionary steps you take now will guide your organization through this current public heath situation and the next one that will inevitably follow. As you work through our suggested checklist, reach out to Smart HR if you require additional assistance with emergency preparedness, supervisory training, policy development, establishing reliable channels of communication or implementing temporary or permanent flexible work arrangements for your employees. We are here to help.