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HR Update: Coronavirus (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions

By March 13, 2020 No Comments

The coronavirus pandemic has left employers with many questions on how best to navigate concerns about employee safety. The below Frequently Asked Questions are based on advice from federal resources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus change, the CDC and other government agencies may issue additional recommendations.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I have to allow employees to wear a mask?

No. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that people only need to wear face masks if they are treating someone who is infected with the coronavirus.

Further, under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) respiratory protection standard, a respirator must be provided to employees only “when such equipment is necessary to protect the health of such employees.” OSHA rules also provide guidance on when a respirator is not required: “an employer may provide respirators at the request of employees or permit employees to use their own respirators if the employer determines that such respirator use will not in itself create a hazard.”

Can an employee simply refuse to work without a mask?

Absent a legally recognized disability, unique physical condition, or an occupation where employees work directly with those impacted by a condition such as the coronavirus or flu, you are generally not required to allow workers to wear masks at work.

Can an employee refuse to come to work because of fear of infection?

Generally, no. Employees are entitled to refuse to work if they believe they are in imminent danger. OSHA defines imminent danger as “any conditions or practices in any place of employment which are such that a danger exists which can reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately or before the imminence of such danger can be eliminated through the enforcement procedures otherwise provided by this Act.”

The threat must be immediate or imminent, meaning an employee must believe that death or serious physical harm could occur.  An example would be working with patients in a medical setting without personal protective equipment.

Can I take an employee’s temperature?

Generally, no. The EEOC considers taking an employee’s temperature to be a medical exam under the ADA.

If COVID-19 becomes widespread in the community as assessed by state or local health authorities or the CDC, then employers may measure employees’ body temperatures.

Can I send an employee home if I think they are infected?

Yes. The CDC states that employees who exhibit symptoms of influenza-like illness at work during a pandemic should leave the workplace. Additionally, the action would be permitted under the ADA if the illness were serious enough to pose a direct threat.

How much information may I request from employees who report feeling ill at work or who call in sick?

Employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing influenza-like symptoms, such as fever or chills and a cough or sore throat. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.

If pandemic becomes severe, then inquiries, even if disability-related, are justified by a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that the severe form of pandemic poses a direct threat.

What should I do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

That employee should remain off the worksite for 14 days. Also, have that employee identify all individuals they worked in close proximity (six feet) to, for the previous 14 days, and those employees should also be sent home for a 14-day period of time to ensure the infection does not spread. When sending the employees home, do not identify by name the infected employee or you could risk a violation of confidentiality laws.

You may also want to consider asking a cleaning company to undertake a deep cleaning of your affected workspaces.

These steps should be taken if an employee has a suspected but unconfirmed case of COVID-19 or if the employee has self-reported they came into contact with someone who had a presumptive positive case of COVID-19.

Do I have to offer paid sick leave?

Currently, the U.S. does not have a federal law requiring a minimum amount of paid leave. Individual States may have their own laws, such as California’s that require employers to offer a minimum of three days per year of paid sick leave.

This may change in the coming weeks as President Trump stated during his March 11th televised Oval Office address: “To ensure that working Americans impacted by the virus can stay home without fear of financial hardship, I will soon be taking emergency action, which is unprecedented, to provide financial relief,”

What precautions can I take to protect employees?

You should be doing the following:

  • Promote frequent and thorough hand washing, including by providing workers, customers, and worksite visitors with a place to wash their hands.
  • If soap and running water are not immediately available, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol.
  • Provide customers and the public with tissues and trash receptacles.
  • Employers should explore whether they can establish policies and practices, such as flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), to increase the physical distance among employees and between employees and others if state and local health authorities recommend the use of social distancing strategies.
  • Have a single point of contact for employees for all concerns that arise relating to health and safety.
  • Follow updates from the local Health Department, CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding additional precautions.

And you should reiterate to your employees:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with others, especially those who are sick.
  • For the time being, refrain from shaking hands.
  • Encourage respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • Stay home when you are sick.

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