As of March 4th, 2020, the novel coronavirus (“COVID-19”) first detected in China has now been detected in almost 70 locations internationally, including the United States. Many of these locations have subsequently reported community spread of the illness by person-to-person contact, as opposed to earlier infections involving animal-to-person spread. While the severity of the illness remains unclear, current data indicates that nearly 3000 have died worldwide, while in the United States, 9 deaths have been confirmed.
In light of health risks to employees, as well as the potential for stigma and discrimination in the workplace, there are a number of steps employers should consider taking now to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak:
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) recommends actively encouraging sick employees to stay home. This includes having sick employees notify their supervisors of illness; adopting “non-punitive” leave policies; refraining from requiring a healthcare provider’s note for employees who experience acute respiratory symptoms; and allowing employees to stay at home to care for sick family members.
- The CDC also recommends employers encourage their employees to engage in healthy hygienic practices, such as hand washing and cough-and-sneeze etiquette, in addition to staying home when sick. It notes that the best way to avoid the illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus. However, the CDC does not recommend any facilities disinfection beyond routine environmental cleaning at this time.
- Allow employees to work from home when possible, and should the situation worsen, consider making a work-at-home policy mandatory. Twitter has adopted a policy where it “would tailor practices to remote working but would keep offices open for employees who preferred to or needed to work at company premises, with the exception of Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, where working from home was mandatory.”
- Consider limiting or barring non-essential work travel for your employees, particularly travel to regions that have experienced community spread of the illness. Consider limiting in-person contact with employees who have recently returned from locations where the outbreak has been more severe. The CDC recommends such restrictions last for at least two weeks.
- Create an Infectious-Disease Management Plan that addresses not just the current outbreak, but potential future outbreaks as well. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (“SHRM”), an effective plan should address such topics as: workplace safety precautions; employee travel restrictions; provisions for stranded travelers unable to return home; mandatory medical check-ups, vaccinations or medication; mandatory reporting of exposure; employee quarantine or isolation; and facility shutdown. A plan should include how to communicate with employees about staying away from work and working remotely when necessary.
- Limit in-person job interviews and consider conducting interviews by video conference. Limit on-site visits by guests to offices and facilities to only those necessary to conduct the business of the Company.
- Be reasonable in applying your policies, and work to accommodate the needs of your employees not only during the current outbreak, but also once the situation returns to normal. Focus on being responsive to employee questions and concerns and being flexible beyond your normal PTO/sick-leave policies.