On February 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced the official name for the current coronavirus outbreak: COVID-19.
Formerly known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, this upper-respiratory disease was first identified in Wuhan, China, and declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization on January 30, 2020.
At the present, there is no specific treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 and it appears to be able to spread from person to person—although it’s not clear how easily this happens.
As of February 13, 2020, there is 15 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States. While the CDC is closely monitoring this outbreak, your company may be uncertain as to your next steps to ensure your work environment is safe.
The CDC has issued interim guidance that may help prevent workplace exposures to illnesses such as the Coronavirus. You can read more about that here.
In response, we’ve put together the following FAQ below.
Does my company have a responsibility to notify employees of any risks?
Employers have a general duty to protect employees from recognized hazards in the workplace. OSHA requires employers to provide a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm”. Learning from past infectious disease outbreaks, most employers likely do not need to take any specific actions.
What are some best practices for employers during this time?
The recent outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak has the global community on high alert and naturally, has caused employers to consider taking precautionary steps. Some employers have a higher sensitivity to this topic due to company travel to and from China.
Note: Effective February 2, 2020 at 5pm, the U.S. government suspended entry of foreign nationals who have been in China within the past 14 days. In addition, U.S. citizens, residents and their immediate family members who have been in Hubei province and other parts of mainland China are allowed to enter the United States, but they are subject to health monitoring and possible quarantine for up to 14 days.
Employers should consult a legal professional to develop a more comprehensive return to work practice. For example, if any returning employees are ill or indicate a concern over contracting the virus, the employer may require the employee to obtain medical clearance from their doctor before allowing them back in the office.
For employers that do not have concerns regarding employees who travel to China, it may be a better practice to provide brief communication and education (most agree that less is more when it comes to educating employees on this topic) whilst being very careful to avoid the pitfalls of offering medical opinions and misinformation.
Here are some tips:
- Educate employees about how the disease is spread, symptoms, and best practices to avoid transmission.
- Encourage employees to self-report any potential symptoms for themselves or other family members who have recently return from one of the affected areas.
- Establish an emergency preparedness plan that includes reporting procedures, communication plans and medical options.
This may also be a good opportunity for employers to actively reinforce their sick leave policies by;
- Encouraging all employees to review the company sick leave and PTO policies
- Reminding employees to stay home if they are feeling ill and ensure that supervisors/managers are trained to send employees home if they are sick
- Promoting basic health & wellness techniques to guard against illness (i.e. avoiding contact with those they know to be ill, washing their hands, etc.
The key is expressing your company’s concern for the well-being of your workforce. It’s also important to outline how your company’s existing policies work with the current situation. Therefore, encouraging employees to review the company sick leave and PTO policies is a good idea as discussed above.
Examples of resources that healthcare carriers have made available to their employer group clients & their employees:
- Kaiser Permanente – message from their National Healthcare Continuity Clinical Workgroup
- Anthem Blue Cross – Member News story from their Better Care Blog
- Blue Shield of CA – News Center FAQ post from their Senior Medical Director
- Aetna – Post from their Member Resources Archive
- CIGNA – FAQ Flyer on the Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak
Websites for more information:
(Please note: CDC will be updating materials soon to reflect the official name: COVID-19)
Employee Assistance Program
Should your employees have access to an Employee Assistance Program, this is a great opportunity to remind them that they can reach out to access this resource whether they are experiencing their own issues coping with the outbreak or simply looking for guidance on how to talk about a pandemic with their children.