As workplaces gradually reopen and safety precautions are put in place, it is particularly important to be cognizant of employees at a higher risk for severe illnesses if they contract COVID-19. Higher-risk employees are those over 65 years of age and those who have an underlying medical condition such as chronic lung disease, weakened immunity, severe obesity, liver disease, diabetes, hypertension, moderate to severe asthma and chronic kidney disease requiring dialysis. The CDC has provided “Interim Guidance for Employers with Workers at High Risk” that contains specific recommendations on how to best protect higher-risk employees.
The CDC suggests employers ask higher-risk employees to self-identify as such. Employers should notify all employees of their ability to self-identify and explain the self-identification procedure. The employee communication should explain the CDC’s definition of a higher-risk employee and include CDC information on how higher-risk employees can prevent contracting COVID-19. Employees should be told not to disclose the medical condition that qualifies them as higher-risk when self-identifying. Employers cannot unilaterally exclude some workers from the workplace consistent with prior EEOC guidance prohibiting employers from categorically restricting older and medically-vulnerable employees from the workplace.
Higher-risk employees may have a condition qualifying as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Higher-risk employees who desire or need reasonable accommodation must let the employer know verbally, or in writing, that a job modification related to an underlying medical condition is needed. If the need for an accommodation is not obvious, the employer may request medical documentation or ask the employee questions to determine whether the employee’s disability requires an accommodation.
The CDC Interim Guidance recommends employers allow higher-risk employees to continue to telework until the threat of COVID-19 passes. When telework is not feasible, the CDC states that employers should consider offering higher-risk workers duties that minimize their contact with customers and other employees. However, consistent with EEOC guidance, such an accommodation should be made in coordination with the employee, not imposed unilaterally by the employer.
Many of the recommendations in the CDC’s Interim Guidance are applicable to the workplace as a whole and include the following suggestions:
- Employers should ensure the proper operation of their ventilation systems prior to reopening. Once reopened, employers should keep doors and windows open when possible to increase circulation of outdoor air unless doing so poses a safety risk to employees.
- Employers should enforce the use of face coverings when around others where feasible, and, for certain industries, require face shields.
- Employers should consider conducting routine, daily health checks (e.g., temperature and symptom screening) of all employees while keeping all medical information confidential.
- Employees with COVID-19 symptoms at work should be separated from other employees and sent home immediately. Areas used by the employee should be closed off and disinfected.
- Employers should inform employees who have had close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 to stay home and self-monitor for symptoms
- Employers should be prepared to close for a few days if there is a case of COVID-19 in the workplace or longer if cases increase in the local vicinity.
- Employers should train all managers and staff in the above safety actions virtually or in-person if social distancing is maintained.
It’s important to note the CDC’s “Interim Guidance for Employers with Workers at High Risk” contains recommendations and isn’t federally mandated.
Contact Smart HR
When implementing any of the CDC’s recommendations, careful thought should be given to proper planning, communication and implementation. Smart HR is currently assisting many clients with these and similar measures and is available to help you too. Call today to set up an initial consultation with a Smart HR consultant to ensure your company implements legally-compliant best practices to maintain the safety of your workforce.