Coronavirus Update: FAQs for Employers
With the stock market dropping and airlines cancelling flights to certain countries, many Americans are understandably concerned about the possible spread of the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in the United States. While there is limited information available, employers should take this opportunity to communicate with employees and alleviate fears to the extent possible.
What is coronavirus?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), coronavirus is a virus that causes respiratory illness in people and can spread from person to person. Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death. Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The CDC believes at this time that symptoms of coronavirus may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 days after exposure.
How prevalent is coronavirus?
As of March 5, there have been more than 93,000 cases of the virus and more than 3,200 deaths worldwide, with 160 confirmed cases and 11 deaths in the United States. To put this into perspective, the CDC estimates that over 34,000 people died in the United States from seasonal flu during the 2018–2019 influenza season. The CDC has issued guidance or preventing the spread of the virus. It states that individuals confirmed to have 2019-nCoV, or who are being evaluated for infection, should not go to work, school, or public areas, and should not use public transportation or taxis.
Should we restrict employee travel?
Employers should monitor advisories from the CDC and Department of State closely and provide employees guidance if there are travel restrictions on locations where employers have operations or where employees may travel. Some employers, for example, are limiting employee travel, and some are asking employees to work from home (self-quarantine) for two weeks following a return from travel to certain locations.
Should we be concerned about receiving packages or products from areas with known coronavirus cases?
No. According to the CDC, there is a very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures. There is no evidence to support transmission of coronavirus from imported goods.
How should we address sick employees?
Review leave of absence, telecommuting and sick leave policies and adjust them, where necessary, to encourage employees to stay at home if they are experiencing symptoms that may be associated with coronavirus, just as employers should be doing with seasonal flu. When sick employees come to work, they run the risk of infecting the rest of the workforce.
If, based upon an employee’s recent travel and/or the exhibition of signs and symptoms of coronavirus, an employer reasonably believes that an employee was exposed to the virus and/or an employee has a confirmed case of the virus, the employer should:
- Advise the employee to seek medical care right away and to avoid contact with others;
- Tell the employee not to come to work until the symptoms disappear and a doctor has confirmed that they are medically cleared to return to work. The employer should utilize established leave of absence policies and/or consider allowing the employee to telecommute during this time period;
- Contact the CDC and local health department immediately; and
- If an employee is diagnosed with the virus, inform other employees of possible exposure (without identifying the source of the possible exposure) and advise them to contact their healthcare providers.
What else can we do to help employees?
Provide employees with good, factual information about coronavirus, including symptoms and incubation period. The CDC’s website is a useful resource. Post signs that tell workers, visitors and clients the steps for proper hand hygiene and cough etiquette. This information can help limit worker exposure to germs and the spread of many illnesses. Posters are available on the CDC’s website.
How do we address employee concerns about co-workers who appear sick and/or who may be from areas with known coronavirus cases?
Employers should be prepared to respond to employees who express reservations about working with employees or others who have returned from international travel or who are otherwise suspected of being infected with coronavirus. While some employee worries will be reasonably based on and consistent with guidance from medical authorities, other concerns may be driven by unfounded fear or speculation. Employers must be careful not to feed into unsubstantiated employee concerns and to avoid engaging in discrimination — including discrimination against individuals who are disabled or perceived as disabled because they are exhibiting symptoms associated with the virus, or individuals belonging to protected classes associated with a virus that appears to have originated in Asia.
Is there a written communication we can send to our employees?
Depending on your company, some version of the following communication may be appropriate:
- Log in to Access (MEA Members-Only Resource)
Employers should consult with experienced human resources professionals and/or labor and employment counsel with any questions regarding illness-related policies or practices. For MEA members, the Hotline and a Member Legal Services attorney are available to provide this assistance.
Amy McAndrew, Esquire
Director of Member Legal Services
MidAtlantic Employers’ Association
*This Alert is provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.