Protecting Your Business and Employees During Coronavirus: Tips to Educate, Evaluate and Prepare
COVID-19, or coronavirus, is spreading, but now is not the time to panic – it is time for businesses to prepare. There is a lot of information out there, including a great deal of misinformation, and the situation is in constant flux. At the current moment, most U.S. workers remain at low risk of exposure to COVID-19. Nonetheless, we suggest employers take several smart steps to ensure that their businesses are ready to respond to the threat of COVID-19.
Educate: It is important to provide accurate information to your workforce.
- As of March 5, 2020, the CDC reports that there were 99 total cases in the U.S., with 13 states reporting cases and 10 total deaths. This does not include the 48 people repatriated to the U.S. from Wuhan, China, and the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship, all of whom were quarantined upon arrival. Follow the CDC’s regularly updated webpage for current factual information. OSHA also provides information for employers on COVID-19.
- The first step in appropriate education will be to reassure your workforce that you are committed to their health and safety. If you have a disaster response plan or, even better, a business pandemic plan, this is an excellent time to remind your workforce of its existence and go over major pieces of the plan.
- Direct employees to legitimate resources for information. One example is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website, cdc.gov. The CDC has prepared significant information for public awareness, including guides for best practices in the home, at school, and at work (with additional information specifically for airlines, the shipping industry, and health care).
Whether or not your business has a specific plan in place, remind the workforce of the best ways to avoid transmission:
- Wash hands thoroughly and often.
- Cough into the crook of your elbow.
- Keep a clean workspace.
- Stay home if you are sick and get proper treatment. If you live with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 infection, inform your supervisor.
- Abandon the handshake. Simply looking into a person’s eyes can suffice as a greeting. Some employers have pins with a slash through a handshake graphic. Suggest gracious language your employees may use to decline a handshake For example, “We’re adopting some lower-contact greeting customs in an effort to stay as healthy as we can.”
Employers should alert their workforce to the following primary symptoms of COVID-19, which are also symptoms of general colds and flu, and should encourage workers to stay home if they experience these symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing.
- Sore throat/coughing.
Note: Very few cases include vomiting or diarrhea symptoms.
Evaluate: A hospital in Washington state will have different needs from a bakery in North Carolina, which will have different needs from a venture capital firm in Washington, D.C., whose workforce routinely travels to southeast Asia. Some of these actions may need to be implemented, depending on your business model.
- Travel: Businesses should limit non-essential overseas travel, particularly to areas under a CDC advisory (and the CDC recommends postponing all travel to high-risk areas). If travel is required, the employee and the business should view CDC travel guidelines frequently before, during, and after global travel. If an employee engages in travel, he or she should report it to the business in order for the business to assess the risk to that employee and to others.
- Remote work: If remote work capabilities are available, allow the workforce to use those capabilities in a flexible manner. Consider whether expansion of remote work capabilities – or at least planning the necessary technology support for those capabilities – makes sense before COVID-19 becomes active in your area.
Employee communication: If an employee has potentially exposed co-workers, inform those individuals of the possible exposure as soon as possible and conduct risk assessments as needed, but remember to maintain employee confidentiality as required by the ADA. Of course, reinforce to supervisors and others as necessary that risk assessment has nothing to do with nationality or race.
Prepare: All businesses should be prepared to take particular steps to protect their workforce and must be cognizant of how other laws affect what steps are available.
At a bare minimum, employers are advised to take the following steps.
- Most employers should not require employees to get tested. COVID-19 symptoms mirror those of many other illnesses, such as influenza, and requiring medical exams is presumptively off limits under the ADA. There are some limited exceptions to this – always talk to counsel first.
- Educate supervisors. Fear often can result in discriminatory conduct with staff targeting certain nationalities.
- Do not require employees to stay at home unless they have an active illness or have been placed in quarantine.
- Encourage the practice of good sanitation and hygiene by disseminating information, providing hand sanitizer in all group areas, and ensuring thorough sanitation practices by cleaning staff and vendors.
Additional steps can be taken to protect your workforce and ensure your business stays open and operative. If you can implement any new policies and procedures that will protect your workforce and customers and preserve business continuity, the time to do so is before COVID-19 is active in your locality.
- This is a great time to consider the flexibility of your leave policies and to provide remote work capability, if feasible.
- Paid leave accessibility encourages your workforce to take sick leave as needed.
- Supervisors have the authority to ask an employee to leave due to concerns about contagion and safety based on displayed symptoms, quarantine, or positive test results, and employees should have recourse to Human Resources for assistance navigating any such leave.
- Consider whether your workforce’s health and safety rely on outside vendors or suppliers and consider ramping up those services or ensuring backup plans for equipment and supplies. For example, you may want to revisit janitorial protocols, the capabilities of on-site clinics, and the availability of supplies such as gloves.
In addition to the information and resources highlighted above regarding preparing and protecting employees, companies need to anticipate how to deal with, and potentially stem, disruptions in their businesses associated with illness and leave. Business leaders should consider developing plans to address the following scenarios and/or other variables that may be critical for business continuity in certain industries:
- Management should address designating a chain of command for all major projects and a contingency plan in case anyone falls ill.
- Check your business interruption insurance.
- Consider options for temporary workers.
- Consider appropriate out-of-office messaging for people who fall ill.
- Consider appropriate messaging if projects fall behind schedule because employees are affected by coronavirus.
This newsletter contains general, condensed summaries of actual legal matters, statutes and opinions for information purposes. It is not meant to be and should not be construed as legal advice. Readers with particular needs on specific issues should retain the services of competent counsel. For more information, please visit our website at www.williamsmullen.com or contact Laura D. Windsor, 804.420.6466 or firstname.lastname@example.org.