The COVID-19 situation in the United States is complex and rapidly changing, which means that guidance to employers also changes rapidly. This alert provides broad-based advice to employers. If you have specific questions based on your business or your employees, please reach out for more specific guidance.
Federal law requires employers to provide a “safe workplace” for employees but there is little guidance about what a “safe workplace” means, especially in light of a new and relatively unknown pandemic. Nevertheless, all decisions about employees should be based on the obligation to provide a safe workplace and to avoid exposing employees and others to virus-related risks.
In light of the rapidly changing circumstances and leadership at all levels asking for the public to practice social distancing to slow or prevent the spread of the virus, we encourage employers to take a “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” approach to employment-related issues.
The first step is to communicate with employees openly and often. Often, treating employees with respect and trust goes a long way to making sure that we are all safe and making good decisions.
In addition, we think the following steps are prudent:
- Encourage employees to work from home whenever possible. If employees ask to work from home, try to accommodate them without seeking too much additional personal information. Avoid pressuring employees to come to work if they believe it is in their best interest to stay home.
- If work from home is not possible, based on the nature of your business, direct employees to stay home if they are feeling sick and to seek medical attention if they are exhibiting flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, and/or shortness of breath. If employees in the workplace are exhibiting such symptoms, you may send them home.
- Ask that any employees who test positive, are confirmed to have COVID-19, or who have contact with those you do to notify a particular person in the company, ideally someone in HR or in leadership, so that the employer can take any necessary steps to protect other employees, clients, and business partners. All such employees should be required to follow medical guidance about how long to remain quarantined.
- Remind employees that they should also be taking all possible precautions, including following the guidance of local officials with regard to travel, self-quarantining, and avoid traveling to areas with high rates of infection.
- If you cannot close or have employees work from home, make sure the workplace is cleaned and disinfected as frequently as possible. Require encourage employees to help with that mission – wash hands, wipe down surfaces, and limit or eliminate physical contact.
- Seek guidance about how to create or revise policies and practices to help ease employee concerns about pay, paid leave, and the economic impact of this issue.
As is often the case when addressing issues related to people in the workplace, many factors come into play and even well-intentioned decisions can have significant negative consequences. We encourage you to tread carefully and seek advice. Amy Muhlendorf is leading GCPC’s employment practice response to COVID-19. If you have questions, she can be reached at email@example.com or 703-226-2720.