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Coronavirus: What Employers Need to Know

As we see reports of COVID-19 (commonly known as the coronavirus) in the US, employers are wondering what they should do to prepare for a possible outbreak.

First, and foremost:  DO NOT PANIC.

Second, learn how to wash your hands properly, and keep your hands away from the T-zone of your face (eyes, nose mouth).  Medical professionals say this is the best way to protect yourself from the spread of most airborne illnesses.

Next, regularly check in with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to get basic information about how businesses should respond to the coronavirus.  They have some excellent guidance, which includes the following:


    • Actively encourage sick employees to stay home:

        • Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° F [37.8° C] or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants). Employees should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.

        • Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.

        • Talk with companies that provide your business with contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.

        • Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.

        • Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.


    • Separate sick employees:

        • 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. Sick employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available).


    • Emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees:

        • Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.

        • Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used preferentially if hands are visibly dirty.

        • Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained. Place hand rubs in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.


    • Perform routine environmental cleaning:

        • Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label.

        • No additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended at this time.

        • Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.


OSHA also has information on their website about coronavirus.

Try not to be overzealous about sending employees to the doctor just because they are coughing or sneezing.  People with chronic respiratory illnesses or allergies may already do these things, and you do not want to make them feel harassed.  At the same time, folks with chronic respiratory conditions are vulnerable populations, so if there is a legitimate concern that a person is sick, express that concern as one about the health of the employee.  However--do not seek health information about any chronic conditions.

Furthermore, if there is a large outbreak of disease, your FMLA and attendance policies are going to be sorely tested.  The CDC recommends some leniency in the requirements for doctors’ notes because the medical care providers may be overloaded.  If you make exceptions to policies, be consistent in those exceptions across the board.  In anticipation of increased absenteeism, consider cross-training employees so that gaps can be filled more quickly.

This is an evolving situation, and we will continue to provide guidance as things develop.

Kathleen J. Jennings
Author: Kathleen J. JenningsEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Kathleen J. Jennings is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters.

View her attorney profile page here.


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