Coronavirus: What Employers Should Know
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a virus that causes respiratory illness in people and can spread from person to person. The virus was first identified following an outbreak in Wuhan, China. On January 27, 2020, the Department of State issued a Level 3 Travel Advisory for all of China, recommending that individuals “reconsider travel.” It also issued a Level 4 Travel Advisory advising against travel to Hubei Province. Similarly, the CDC has issued a Warning Level 3 Alert recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China. Employers should monitor these advisories closely and provide employees guidance if the advisories cover locations where employers have operations or locations where employees may travel.
As of February 3, there have been more than 17,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 360 deaths in China, with 11 confirmed cases and no 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 for 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. The Pennsylvania Department of Health advises that individuals can go to work or school if they traveled to China but are not showing symptoms of illness.
In addition to managing employee travel concerns, employers should be prepared to respond to employees who express reservations about working with employees or others who have returned from travel in Asia or who are otherwise suspected of being infected with the 2019-nCoV virus. 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.
If, based upon an employee’s recent travel and the exhibition of signs and symptoms of the virus, an employer reasonably believes that an employee was exposed to the coronavirus 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.
Employers should consult with experienced human resources professionals and/or labor and employment counsel when in doubt about the appropriate course of action. For MEA members, the Hotline and a Member Legal Services attorney are available to provide this assistance.
Amy G. McAndrew, Esquire
Director of Legal and Compliance Services
MidAtlantic Employers’ Association
*This Alert is provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.