COVID-19: Important Considerations for Employers

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) warned Americans last week that it is not a question of whether COVID-19 will spread in the United States, but when it will spread. The CDC followed up the warning with a tweet advising Americans to start preparing for the spread of COVID-19.  Just as individuals, families, schools, communities, and hospitals must prepare, employers must also prepare.

This alert addresses steps employers should consider implementing immediately in an effort to reduce the potential for transmission of the virus.  In addition, this alert identifies some plans employers should consider developing now, so that if an employee is diagnosed with the virus, or if a quarantine or wide-scale outbreak occurs, employers are better prepared to respond appropriately.

What steps should employers implement now?

There are basic, common-sense steps employers can and should implement immediately in an effort to reduce the potential for transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace, including:

  • Educating and updating employees on the reported symptoms of COVID-19. Currently, the CDC reports that symptoms typically appear within 2-14 days after exposure, but some contagious people do not exhibit any symptoms. The virus spreads through respiratory droplets, and symptoms are similar to the common cold, including a cough, runny nose, sore throat, and headache.  
  • Posting notices reminding and encouraging employees to:
    • regularly wash their hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer;
    • avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth; and
    • refrain from coughing or sneezing into their bare hands.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting common areas regularly, such as doorknobs and work surfaces; providing alcohol-based hand sanitizers, facial tissues, and disinfecting towels for individual spaces.
  • Requiring employees who are sick to stay away from work, and if an employee becomes sick at work, requiring the employee to return home.
  • Informing employees of what action they should take if they suspect that they themselves, a family member, or co-worker is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or has been in close contact with someone who is exhibiting symptoms, including reporting this information on a confidential basis to HR or other individuals designated to receive the information.
  • Requiring employees to avoid travel to regions affected by COVID-19.
  • Minimizing unnecessary work travel (especially flying) and/or allowing for increased use of teleconferencing or videoconferencing.
  • Monitoring the workplace to ensure there is no discrimination or harassment against individuals of certain ethnicities or nationalities. COVID-19 affects individuals of all nationalities and ethnicities.  An individual who has been physically present in a region reported to be affected by COVID-19 or who has been in contact with an infected person, however, should be restricted from the workplace during a 14-day monitoring period.  It is critical for employers to understand this distinction to ensure that fears of the COVID-19 virus do not lead to discrimination or harassment in the workplace. 
  • Updating policies or procedures for sickness-related absences and flexible work from home policies. Make sure employees are aware of these policies.
  • Implementing or updating workplace emergency response procedures to ensure that they include infectious disease protocols that comply with OSHA and health and safety regulations.
  • Keeping up-to-date on the CDC’s facts about COVID-19. For additional and updated information from the CDC on guidance for businesses and employers to plan and respond to COVID-19 go to https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html

What response plans should employers consider developing now?                

The COVID-19 outbreak is unchartered territory in the United States.  While it is impossible to plan for every contingency, below is a list of some plans employers may consider developing now:

  • Employee Absences: It is reasonable to anticipate that the COVID-19 virus will lead to increased employee absences.  Employers should review staffing requirement plans now in anticipation of increased absences.  Employers must also be cognizant of their legal obligations under applicable federal and state laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act and the Michigan Paid Medical Leave Act, among others. 
  • Increased Flexibility: Employers should consider implementing increased flexibility with attendance and return-to-work policies in the event of a suspected or confirmed outbreak of COVID-19 in Michigan.  For example, employers should actively encourage employees who are not feeling well to stay at home.  Additionally, while many employers require employees returning from an illness to provide a doctor’s note confirming they are fit for duty, the CDC suggests employers waive this requirement to prevent additional burdens on medical providers in the event of an outbreak.
  • Requests to Work Remotely: While there are relatively few reported and confirmed cases of COVID-19 transmissions in the U.S., employers should plan for employee requests to avoid exposure. These requests may require employers to balance employees’ concerns with business operation needs. Because most business operations are unique, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach.  Some employers may choose a temporary, optional work from home policy.  For other employers, however, this is not a viable option.  If an employer plans for some or all employees to work remotely, it should confirm its existing network is capable of accommodating a larger than normal influx of employees accessing the network at the same time.
  • Onsite Testing: In the event of a suspected or confirmed outbreak, employers may consider developing plans to implement onsite testing and monitoring in an effort to identify and remove individuals (i.e., employees, vendors, customers, etc.) who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 from the workplace.
  • Quarantines and Travel Restrictions: Many governments around the world, including in the United States, have implemented travel restrictions and quarantines in an attempt to stop the transmission of the virus.  Employers should develop response plans now in the event that quarantines are implemented or travel restrictions are imposed which interfere with or prohibit employees from reporting to work.  When developing such plans, keep in mind that less drastic measures, such as closing schools and daycare facilities, are still likely to impact employees’ ability to report to work.
  • Employee Exposure or Infection: If an employee tests positive for COVID-19 or has been in close contact with an individual who has tested positive, we suggest contacting the CDC and your local health department immediately.  Additionally, any such employees should not be permitted in the workplace.
  • Management Continuity Plans: Employers may consider developing a management continuity plan which requires certain key employees or groups to work remotely and refrain from any physical interaction with other employees, so that if one group becomes affected by the virus, the remaining group is less at risk of also being affected. 

More questions about COVID-19 or developing response plans?

If you have any questions about COVID-19 or developing response plans, please contact your Butzel Long employment attorney for assistance.

Brett A. Rendeiro
248.258.1312
rendeiro@butzel.com

Sarah L. Nirenberg
248.258.2919
nirenberg@butzel.com

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