Coronavirus Concerns: Addressing Illnesses in the Workplace

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Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been in the news non-stop since it first surfaced in 2019. Thousands of people worldwide have been admitted to hospitals and tens of thousands more are on lockdown.  Much is unknown about how COVID-19 spreads. Current knowledge is largely based on what is known about similar coronaviruses. As HR professionals, this latest serious flu-like outbreak raises the looming topic of managing employee illnesses in the workplace. Here are some important things to keep in mind as you work to keep your office healthy.

Develop a Flexible Leave Policy

Actively encourage a culture where employees know if they are sick, they can stay home without fear of losing their jobs. In addition, employees may need to stay home to care for sick family members or children. If possible, encourage employees to work from home if they or a family member feel unwell. Engage with managers and leadership and ensure the message is clear across the board – emphasizing staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends employees stay home until they have been fever-free for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines. It is best to have a workplace policy that is consistent with your expectations and public health guidance and that employees are aware of this policy.

In California, employees are entitled to paid sick leave. All California employers must post a notice in a conspicuous workplace location notifying employees of their rights to paid sick leave. This notice should be part of the labor law posters hung in your offices already. At minimum, California law allows employees to use at least 24 hours (or 3 days) of paid sick leave per year.  Because several California cities require their own paid sick leave, it is important to know which law applies to your business.

Many employers offer pooled PTO (Paid Time Off) or an unlimited/flexible paid time off program in lieu of paid sick leave. Be cautious, just because you don’t call your program sick leave does not remove the rights and protections employees are entitled to through state and/or local paid sick leave laws.

Can I Send a Visibly Sick Employee Home?

Yes, employers have the right to send sick employees home. The CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately. Non-exempt employees who report to work and are sent home may be entitled to reporting time pay. Exempt employees who do any work should be paid for the full day.

If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19 infection, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Can I Require a Doctor’s Note?

In California, we strongly recommend you do not require a doctor’s note when employees are using paid sick leave or as a requirement to return to work from sick leave. While the law does not specifically prohibit asking for a doctor’s note, it does state that any action which interferes with the employee’s right to leave is unlawful. Because visiting a doctor can be costly and time-intensive for some employees, the common recommendation is to allow employees to take their earned sick leave for up to 24 hours (3 days) without a note. This meets the state sick leave usage entitlement for the year and any additional time off needed can be subject to a doctor’s note. If your employee is experiencing a prolonged medical issue, or they qualify for a leave accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), do an additional investigation about federal, state, and local leave entitlements before moving forward with any action.

Consider Canceling Work Travel

If your business asks employees to travel domestically or internationally consider canceling or postponing trips until more is known about COVID-19 detection and treatment. Use video and voice technology to keep employees connected in the meantime. If an employee must travel to a high-risk area, encourage them to stay home for up to two weeks after travel (the longest known incubation period of similar viruses) and return to the office once they are sure no symptoms have developed.

What to Do Next?

Human Resources has the duty to plan or assist departments in workforce planning, operations, and other areas. Consider the loss of workforce, any functions closed and the ability to temporarily fill positions to keep the company from financial losses. Decisions and actions may need to be taken quickly; however, careful consideration must be made at every step. Employers are encouraged to develop a disease management preparedness plan to reduce their level of risk and liability and to provide a step-by-step action plan to handle the situation most efficiently and effectively.

Here are some helpful links

Check out the CDC’s guide on tackling flu season in the workplace.

The CDC’s latest guidance for employers on CORVID-19.

Megan Coen – Executive HR Consultant – VP

Disclaimer: Some information contained herein has been abridged from numerous sources and may be protected by various copyright laws. Such information should not be construed as consulting or legal advice. Please contact our office for specific advice and/or referrals.

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