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What Employers Need to Know about COVID19

By Chris Gantt-Sorenson

The Coronavirus has progressed to the point that Employers should communicate about it with their employees and also prepare for an infection in their area. Employers are encouraged to communicate with their employees about the Coronavirus calmly, simply and in a way that conveys assurances and diffuses overreactions

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Recommendations for now:

1. Post SCDHEC’s informative poster, pasted below and accessible here, about the Coronavirus in visible locations in restrooms, where employees congregate, such as the kitchen or lunchroom, as well as where the other employment posters are located.  The poster conveys what the symptoms are, how the disease is spread, and offers tips on preventing its transmission.

2. Communicate the following:

  • Assure employees that you are monitoring relevant information regarding COVID-19 and that you will communicate with them in the event that any need to do so arises.  Follow this assurance with regular updates as information comes available that applies to employer’s locale or the locale where employer offers services.
    • Advise managers to report any suspected illness to human resources but to refrain from making any inquiries of the employee regarding the illness.  Ask managers to report any illness to human resources that is communicated to the manager by other employees in the department, but to refrain from having any discussion about it with the reporting employee.  Further, managers should exhibit calmness and foster an environment that does not permit singling out any individual employee who seems ill.
    • Encourage employees to report immediately to human resources any concerns that their colleagues may be infected with the Coronavirus. Remind them that it is easy to confuse Coronavirus symptoms with those of the common cold or the flu, and ask them to reserve their comments for human resources and refrain from accusing employees or reporting to work ill or complaining about them to their peers.

NOTE: Human resources should carefully monitor workplace communications with regards to employees from other nations where the infection is more prevalent to ensure those employees are not subjected to national origin or other harassing conduct.

  • Ask employees with possible symptoms of the Coronavirus to follow public health guidance from the CDC and seek medical risk assessments early.
    • Advise employees that they must not report to work if they are ill or have a fever.  While this is always important, especially during the flu season, with the concerns regarding the Coronavirus, it is even more important.
    • Remind employees to follow the company’s absence reporting guidelines and communicate with human resources if you are concerned about attendance. Those employers who require doctor’s notes can do so but those that do not ordinarily require doctor’s note should not do so now. However, those employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 will need to provide a note indicating they are cleared to return, even if this is not otherwise the employer’s practice, as long as the employer requires this consistently for all employees who are diagnosed with the Coronavirus.
    • Monitor the workplace consistently to determine if it appears employees with possible COVD-19 symptoms are reporting the work.  While an employer can never ask an employee about their medical condition absent rare circumstances under the ADA, there is no harm in approaching an employee exhibiting symptoms to inquire if they are alright.  As always, employers must balance the need to protect the workforce with the legal requirement to protect an employee’s privacy, refrain from medical-related inquiries or discussions about an employee’s medical or private health information that might violate HIPAA.
    • Human resources should only share medical information regarding employees with those who have a need to know.  This information is otherwise confidential.  Those who are informed of an employee’s medical condition should be reminded of the need to keep the information confidential.
    • Remind those employees who have plans to travel to inform themselves of the level of infection in the areas they plan to travel.

Employers might also place good hand sanitizers around the office and ensure the restrooms have effective hand soap and warm water for use in washing hands.  Consider replacing the foam soaps with more robust hand soap during this time.  Ensure that paper towel dispensers are functional so that employees are not having to remove towels from a roll.  Consider placing tissue boxes on every desk and in common areas.

In the event of an outbreak:

Employers should create a contingency plan for the continuation of business operations in the event infection impacts the area where the company operates or its employees, or requires office closures. 

  • Follow public health guidance and advise employees to do so.  Make that guidance readily available to employees by posting it and sharing it with those who request it.
  • Devise a plan for reallocating work to those employees able to report to work.
  • Identify gaps in service if the business must rely on remote work and formulate solutions to address those gaps.
  • Ban non-essential work trips to areas where the infection has spread.
  • Enlist the IT department’s assistance in offering employees online opportunities to meet with clients in lieu of business travel.
  • Require employees who have recently returned from an infected area to advise human resources of that travel.
  • The EEOC permits employers to require employees showing symptoms to stay home in the event a pandemic is declared by the CDC or WHO, and offers employers other guidance on balancing the need to protect other employees against the requirements of the ADA here.
  • Although facemasks are only required for those treating patients with COVID-19, it is not a bad idea to have facemasks available for those employees who report and advise that they are concerned they may be infected or that they are infected so that they are not spreading germs as they depart the workplace.  However, an employer is not required to provide facemasks to all employees at this time nor is that recommended by the CDC or WHO.
  • Refrain from spraying aerosols that might induce coughing and further spreading of germs.
  • Identify which medical facilities in employer’s area are best for risk assessment and treatment.
  • Consider offering additional paid leave in the event of hardship to those employees who are nonexempt and out of paid leave who have provided evidence of being infected with the Coronavirus.

These recommendations are provided for informational purposes only to assist in the development of procedures to address potential outbreaks associated with the flu or Coronavirus.  Employers should regularly monitor the guidelines and recommendations issued by the CDC, WHO and state health agencies.

HSB’s Employment Law team will continue to monitor this issue. If you have questions about this topic or other employment law matters, please contact Chris or the HSB Employment Law practice team.

Additional Resources:

SC Department of Health and Environmental Control:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Johns Hopkins CSSE Report of Global Cases:

World Health Organization: