How Do I….? Prepare my Workplace for the Spread of Coronavirus

A Series for Businesses Both Small and Large

By Leni Plimpton

The spread of the new coronavirus is making big news across the world. On Tuesday, February 25, federal health officials warned that the spread of the virus was not a question of “if” but rather “exactly when” it would happen. And now, as we finish out the first week of March, as of the time of this writing the virus has been detected in 19 states, including Colorado. As an employer, what can you do to prepare? What should you do?

1.       Stay Calm. Each year employers must weather the storm of seasonal influenza. Preparedness and precautions for the new coronavirus are the same as the best practices during cold and flu season.

2.       Allow sick employees to stay home. What is your sick leave policy? If you do not have one, consider working with an attorney to create one. Avoid creating a culture where employees feel they must come into the office even when they are sick. Ensuring sick employees stay at home reduces the chance of contagion and is thus better for your employees and your business.

3.       Reduce contamination in the workplace. Encourage employees to wash hands frequently. The CDC recommends washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing one’s nose, coughing, or sneezing. Place hand sanitizer around the office—it should be alcohol based with at least 60% alcohol. Sanitize commonly used surfaces such as the microwave, fridge handle, railings, and doorknobs. Encourage employees to avoid touching their nose, mouth, and eyes. Encourage employees to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or to use the upper sleeve. See the CDC’s website for more details. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/prevention-treatment.html

4.       Consider Eliminating or Minimizing Meetings and Large Group Events. Close contact comes with a greater risk of contagion. In the event of a widespread outbreak, reduce or eliminate large gatherings and meetings.

5.       Ensure That There is No Discriminatory Conduct. Unfortunately, since the novel coronavirus originated in China, there has been a rise in racist and xenophobic conduct towards people of Asian descent or national origin. See https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/20/us/coronavirus-racist-attacks-against-asian-americans/index.html. Remind employees of your company’s no-tolerance policy with respect to race and national origin discrimination. Ensure that Asian employees are treated with respect by both coworkers and customers or clients. For questions about enforcing or creating anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation policies, contact an employment lawyer.

6.       Ensure Compliance with the ADA, FMLA, and Other Applicable Laws. Quite a few municipalities across the country have passed paid-sick leave laws. Ensure that you are in compliance with any such law where you have workers. The Family Medical Leave Act applies to employers with more than 50 employees and provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave. FMLA could be applicable if an employee is incapacitated for more than three full consecutive days and consults with a doctor two or more times. Ensure that you are administering FMLA properly to avoid legal risk. With respect to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), temporary illness does not usually qualify as a disability. However, it’s better safe than sorry. If a viral illness is severe and long lasting enough, or leads to complications, there is a possibility that it could qualify as an actual disability requiring reasonable accommodation. When in doubt about these laws and your resulting obligations, do not hesitate to reach out to an employment attorney.

7.       Make a Plan for the Worst-Case Scenario. In the event of a large pandemic in the United States that causes severe illness and death, schools and daycare facilities may be closed. Make a plan to avoid business disruption if multiple employees are prevented from coming to work due to school closures. Review your remote work capabilities and equipment needs.

8.       Educate Yourself. For more information, review OSHA’s publication , “Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic,” available at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3327pandemic.pdf

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