As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the United States, employers may be concerned about how it will affect them. Two areas of concern are what to do on a day-to-day basis to lessen the risk of infection and whether and how to implement a new work-from-home policy.
Regarding day-to-day practices, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published a page of recommendations for the workplace. The page offers some common sense in the face of fears of the virus. For example, it says “Do not make determinations of risk based on race or country of origin.” The disease that the virus causes, known as COVID-19, does not discriminate regarding the race of the person it may infect. While the virus originated in China, it has now spread to various countries, including, for example, Iran and Italy. There is no need to fear infection from people of a specific background. The CDC also recommends that should someone at work become infected, employers should “be sure to maintain confidentiality of people with confirmed COVID-19.” Spreading stories about infected workers is a violation of their medical privacy.
Contrary to some advice given to the media, the CDC recommends that people reporting flu symptoms, including running a fever and having a cough, should not come to work. Employers may want to change their sick leave policy to allow sick workers to stay home and not obtain a doctor’s note, since hospitals may be overwhelmed and unable to provide notes. Specifically, the CDC recommends that employers “Actively encourage sick employees to stay home.” What’s more, the CDC lists the following recommendations regarding sick leave:
- Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° F [37.8° C] or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants). Employees should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
- Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.
- Talk with companies that provide your business with contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
- Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.
- Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.
Furthermore, if employees at work develop symptoms, they should be separated from other employees and allowed to go home. The CDC says that “employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.”
The agency also has some common-sense recommendations about maintaining hygiene, with employers encouraging hand washing, using disinfectants on doorknobs and keyboards, and “Provid[ing] soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained. Place hand rubs in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.” Hand hygiene consists for the most part of thoroughly washing hands. “Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used preferentially if hands are visibly dirty.” Finally, people are encouraged not to panic: “No additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended at this time.”
Finally, flexibility is recommended. For many employers, no infections may happen and business will carry on as usual. But if an infection or infections do occur, “employers should plan to be able to respond in a flexible way to varying levels of severity and be prepared to refine their business response plans as needed.”
The CDC says that employers should:
- Ensure [your] plan [for dealing with the virus] is flexible and involve your employees in developing and reviewing your plan.
- Conduct a focused discussion or exercise using your plan, to find out ahead of time whether the plan has gaps or problems that need to be corrected.
- Share your plan with employees and explain what human resources policies, workplace and leave flexibilities, and pay and benefits will be available to them.
One state that has seen infections is Washington, whose State Department of Health has published a Workplace and Employer Resources & Recommendations page. This page recommends that “employers need to consider how best to decrease the spread of acute respiratory illness and lower the impact of COVID-19 in their workplace in the event of an outbreak.” This can be accomplished with some planning to “Identify and communicate objectives, including one or more of the following: (a) reducing transmission among staff, (b) protecting people who are at higher risk for adverse health complications, (c) maintaining business operations, and (d) minimizing effects on other entities in the supply chains.”
Just like the CDC, Washington’s Department of Health recommends that businesses encourage sick employees to stay home and to separate and send home employees who develop symptoms at work. Further, “Maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.”
Working from Home
The coronavirus outbreak may also be a reason to consider implementing some new work-from-home policies. Managers may want to identify staff who can do their work at home, for example, and evaluate a flexible new policy to foster working from home. This can involve setting up or expanding VPNs, file sharing applications, time-tracking software, and conference calling platforms, among other technical hurdles. Some employees will need laptops. A test program can allow for a few hours at home to see how remote work functions.
As with the response to outbreaks, flexibility is a key concern. Since an outbreak may not come, may not affect business much, or may have a significant impact, it is important to be able to scale your program effectively. With the proper tools in place, managing remote workers can be as feasible as managing workers in the office.
Finally, another consideration for many businesses is travel. How will travel restrictions affect your business? How can you reduce travel but still run your business effectively? This creates another argument in favor of developing video conferencing and conference calling capabilities.
The coronavirus and COVID-19 have already notably affected the world’s economy, as travel decreases and supply chains are affected by workers being out sick. Employers should therefore plan for greater disruption and consider what they will do if employees begin to be sick. The CDC has provided some basic guidance, but it is up to managers to implement new policies to address this latest threat.