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March 3, 2020 | Human Resources | Posted by Ascentis

What Employers Need to Know About Coronavirus

Any medical outbreak is a cause for concern across the HR industry, and current public worries about the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, certainly fit that bill. With so much uncertainty about the virus and its spread, it’s important for employers to have a consistent and implementable strategy for educating employees and dealing with potential outcomes. Here are a few key considerations to keep in mind when developing your business’s coronavirus plan.

Keep sick employees at home

Most of the recommended approaches to coronavirus are common-sense treatments for dealing with any illness in the workplace, and that begins with limiting exposure to carriers. It’s always advisable for a sick worker to stay home, both because of the risk of spreading their symptoms to the rest of the workforce and because a sick worker is unlikely to be a very productive worker.

It should also be noted that coronavirus is an illness, not a disability, which means that a business that directs workers to stay home during an outbreak is not in danger of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission specifically calls for workers with flu-like symptoms to stay home during a pandemic. While COVID-19 has not been classified as a pandemic at the time of this writing, there are strong indications that the World Health Organization may do so in the near future.

Employers should also remind workers of their company’s sick leave policies, including whether paid time off can be taken to care for ailing family members or dependents. If a family member or housemate is diagnosed with coronavirus or displays similar symptoms, employees should be reminded to inform their employers before returning to work. The Centers for Disease Control also encourage employers to exercise more flexibility regarding sick leave during this outbreak, including waiving requirements that employees confirm their illness with a note from a doctor. This helps cut down on extra work for medical professionals during a difficult time and removes a potential discouragement for employees who might try to work through the illness rather than seek a professional opinion.

Keep a clean workplace

Many of the recommendations surrounding coronavirus involve attention to hygiene and cleanliness. Again, these are actions that should be standard operating procedure for preventing the spread of any workplace illness, but their importance is magnified by the threat posed by COVID-19. While the CDC does not currently suggest that any specialized or extraordinary cleaning measures are necessary, it is recommended that businesses conduct regular disinfecting of workspaces, shared spaces such as break rooms and cafeterias, and frequently touched items like doorknobs, countertops, refrigerators, and microwaves. Employees should also be reminded to maintain personal hygiene in the workplace by regularly washing their hands, avoiding touching their faces, and disinfecting tools, computers, or other frequently handled objects.

Prepare for disruptions

Whether or not an official quarantine is ever implemented, it is highly likely that employers will see reduced attendance in the coming weeks due to both illness and fears of illness. Employers should be prepared to re-prioritize projects to account for reduced attendance. Be aware that some tasks and projects will likely take longer to complete than originally forecast if workers get sick, or even if they experience significant changes to their regular work routine, such as a marked increase in people working remotely. Put high-priority and time-sensitive projects at the head of your queues and acknowledge that some less pressing jobs may need to be placed on hold temporarily.

It also pays to review your organizational charts and make contingency plans for filling in for essential employees who may need to take extended sick leave. This may mean that some employees end up with increased workloads to cover those gaps, so be mindful of all applicable overtime regulations.

Define a fair travel policy

Many people are understandably concerned about work-related travel during this time, especially to areas that have been significantly impacted by coronavirus. A number of airlines have temporarily canceled flights to China and other affected regions, and the CDC maintains a regularly updated round-up of recommendations and restrictions for travelers.

As far as travel restrictions for specific employers, those will vary from business to business. While your employees’ health concerns should always be taken seriously, health organizations are not currently recommending any restrictions on domestic travel or on travel to countries without confirmed coronavirus outbreaks. Whatever your company’s decision on travel during this time, be sure to communicate clearly and explicitly to any employees who will be impacted by it. As always, any employee displaying flu-like symptoms should not be allowed to travel for work.

Employers should also be aware that any employees returning from travel to China or other affected areas may be subject to lengthy quarantine periods. With that in mind, it is also important to guard against outbreak-inspired discrimination. Workers who come from countries affected strongly by COVID-19 are no more susceptible to or likely to spread infection than anyone else. Employers who allow employees from those regions to be excluded from activities or otherwise treated differently in the workplace may be in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Stay informed

The spread of COVID-19 is a developing situation, with new information emerging every day. It is important for employers to stay up to date on the latest developments and remain flexible enough to adjust plans accordingly. At this time, for instance, there is no recommendation for American businesses to close or reduce hours to prevent the spread of the virus, but those actions may become necessary in the coming weeks or months.

In addition to the dangers posed by the virus itself, paranoia and misinformation can also lead to panic and loss of productivity. It is crucial not to allow your workplace to get caught up in this kind of dangerous and misleading dialogue. Providing employees with regular updates and education from reliable sources can go a long way in reducing the impact of these fears, especially for roles where working remotely is not an option. Keep a close eye on trusted sources of information such as the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and your state and local health departments. The latter may offer the most pertinent material for a regionally specific workforce. Visit your state, county, or city website to see what precautions and actions are being recommended for your area to help keep your employees and your community safe during this challenging period.

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