As the number of reported cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to rise, employers are increasingly confronted with the possibility of an outbreak in the workplace. In recognizing that employers must do what they can to maintain a safe and healthy work environment, we are providing the following information and guidance for both employers and their workforce.
Disease Prevention in the Workplace
Whenever a communicable disease outbreak is possible, employers may need to take precautions to keep the disease from spreading through the workplace. It is recommended that employers establish a written policy and response plan that covers communicable diseases readily transmitted in the workplace.
Employers can require employees to stay home from work if they have signs or symptoms of a communicable disease that poses a credible threat of transmission in the workplace, or if they have traveled to high-risk geographic areas, such as those with widespread or sustained community transmission of the illness. When possible, employers can consider allowing employees to work remotely. Employers may require employees to provide medical documentation that they can return to work.
Employers can consider canceling business travel to affected geographic areas and may request that employees notify them if they are traveling to these areas for personal reasons. Employees who travel to China should be informed that they may be quarantined or otherwise required to stay away from work until they can provide medical documentation that they are free of symptoms. There are several legal considerations that employers should keep in mind when implementing and administering a communicable illness policy. These considerations are addressed in many of the resources provided below.
Action Steps for Employers
Employers are obligated to maintain a safe and healthy work environment for their employees, but they are also subject to a number of legal requirements protecting workers from discrimination. Compliance issues to consider include:
- The general duty to provide employees with safe workplace conditions imposed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act;
- Protection against disability discrimination (including disability-related inquiries and medical examinations) under the Americans with Disabilities Act;
- Requirements set by federal and state employee leave laws; and
- The compensation of individuals who miss work due to COVID-19.
To address the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace, employers should:
- Closely monitor the CDC, WHO, and state and local public health department websites for information on the status of COVID-19;
- Proactively educate their employees on what is known about the virus, including its transmission and prevention;
- Establish a written communicable illness policy and response plan that covers communicable diseases readily transmitted in the workplace; and
- Consider measures that can help prevent the spread of illness, such as allowing employees flexible work options like working from home.
Communicating with Employees
As part of their efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, employers should consider communicating information about the illness to employees. The CDC, WHO and OSHA have all created informational material on the virus and its symptoms, prevention and treatment that can be helpful for employees.
Federal and state governments are actively publishing information on this development. Reliable resources include the materials listed below:
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC): Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary
- World Health Organization (WHO): Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): Safety and Health Topics: COVID-19
What is the Coronavirus?
The 2019 novel Coronavirus (“COVID-19” or “Coronavirus”) is a virus that is closely related to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, runny nose, cough and trouble breathing. Most people develop only mild symptoms. But some, usually people with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal. The incubation period for COVID-19 varies between 2 and 14 days.
Initially detected in Wuhan, China in late 2019, the first case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported on January 21, 2020. Since then, the disease has spread to more than 150 people within the United States, with CDC officials warning of further outbreaks.
How is the Virus Spread?
According to the CDC, the virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person, between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet) or through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It may also be possible for a person to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has been contaminated with the virus and then touching his or her own mouth, nose, or eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic. Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms, and there have been reports of this occurring, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
General Prevention & Treatment
There is currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus.
However, as a reminder, CDC always recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, including:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask.
- CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
- Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others.
- The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
- If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.