People can catch COVID-19 from others who have the virus. The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets also land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. Therefore, it is important to stay more six feet away from a person who is sick, and to frequently wash your hands. It is possible to catch the virus from someone even before they have symptoms.
UPDATED ANSWER (March 30, 2020)
It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.
UPDATED ANSWER (March 30, 2020)
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently published Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, outlining steps employers can take to help protect their workforce. OSHA has divided workplaces and work operations into four risk zones, according to the likelihood of employees’ occupational exposure during a pandemic. These risk zones are useful in determining appropriate work practices and precautions.
Very High Exposure Risk:
- Healthcare employees performing aerosol-generating procedures on known or suspected pandemic patients.
- Healthcare or laboratory personnel collecting or handling specimens from known or suspected pandemic patients.
High Exposure Risk:
- Healthcare delivery and support staff exposed to known or suspected pandemic patients.
- Medical transport of known or suspected pandemic patients in enclosed vehicles.
- Performing autopsies on known or suspected pandemic patients.
Medium Exposure Risk:
- Employees with high-frequency contact with the general population (such as schools, high population density work environments, and some high-volume retail).
Lower Exposure Risk (Caution):
- Employees who have minimal occupational contact with the general public and other coworkers (such as office employees).
What if an employee appears sick?
If any employee presents themselves at work with a fever or difficulty in breathing, this indicates that they should seek medical evaluation. While these symptoms are not always associated with influenza and the likelihood of an employee having the COVID-19 coronavirus is extremely low, it pays to err on the side of caution. Retrain your supervisors on the importance of not overreacting to situations in the workplace potentially related to COVID-19 in order to prevent panic among the workforce.
UPDATED QUESTION & ANSWER (March 12, 2020)
Yes, you are permitted to ask them to seek medical attention and get tested for COVID-19. The CDC states that employees who exhibit symptoms of influenza-like illness at work during a pandemic should leave the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) confirmed that advising workers to go home is permissible and not considered disability-related if the symptoms present are akin to the COVID-19 coronavirus or the flu.
UPDATED ANSWER (March 19, 2020)
You should send home all employees who worked closely with that employee to ensure the infection does not spread. Before the infected employee departs, ask them to identify all individuals who worked in close proximity (within six feet) for a prolonged period of time (more than a few minutes) with them in the previous 14 days to ensure you have a full list of those who should be sent home. When sending the employees home, do not identify by name the infected employee or you could risk a violation of confidentiality laws. If you work in a shared office building or area, you should inform building management so they can take whatever precautions they deem necessary. The CDC provides that the employees who worked closely to the infected worker “should then self-monitor for symptoms (i.e., fever, cough, or shortness of breath).”
How long should the employees who worked near the employee stay at home? Those employees should first consult and follow the advice of their healthcare providers or public health department regarding the length of time to stay at home. If those resources are not available, the employee should at least remain at home for three days without a fever (achieved without medication) if they don’t develop any other symptoms. If they develop symptoms, they should remain home for at least seven days from the initial onset of the symptoms, and three days without a fever (achieved without medication).
The CDC also provides the following recommendations for most non-healthcare businesses that have suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases:
- It is recommended to close off areas used by the ill persons and wait as long as practical before beginning cleaning and disinfection to minimize potential for exposure to respiratory droplets. Open outside doors and windows to increase air circulation in the area. If possible, wait up to 24 hours before beginning cleaning and disinfection.
- Cleaning staff should clean and disinfect all areas (e.g., offices, bathrooms, and common areas) used by the ill persons, focusing especially on frequently touched surfaces.
- To clean and disinfect:
- If surfaces are dirty, they should be cleaned using a detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection (Note: “cleaning” will remove some germs, but “disinfection” is also necessary).
- For disinfection, diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective.
- Diluted household bleach solutions can be used if appropriate for the surface. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for application and proper ventilation. Check to ensure the product is not past its expiration date. Never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser. Unexpired household bleach will be effective against coronaviruses when properly diluted.
- Cleaning staff should wear disposable gloves and gowns for all tasks in the cleaning process, including handling trash.
- Gloves and gowns should be compatible with the disinfectant products being used.
- Additional PPE might be required based on the cleaning/disinfectant products being used and whether there is a risk of splash. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding other protective measures recommended on the product labeling.
- Gloves and gowns should be removed carefully to avoid contamination of the wearer and the surrounding area. Be sure to clean hands after removing gloves.
- Employers should develop policies for worker protection and provide training to all cleaning staff on site prior to providing cleaning tasks. Training should include when to use PPE, what PPE is necessary, how to properly don (put on), use, and doff (take off) PPE, and how to properly dispose of PPE.
- If you require gloves or masks or other PPE, prepare a simple half-page Job Safety Analysis (JSA): list the hazards and the PPE (gloves, masks, etc., as needed), and the person who drafts the JSA should sign and date it.
If employers are using cleaners other than household cleaners with more frequency than an employee would use at home, employers must also ensure workers are trained on the hazards of the cleaning chemicals used in the workplace and maintain a written program in accordance with OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200). Simply download the manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheet (SDS) and share with employees as needed, and make sure the cleaners used are on your list of workplace chemicals used as part of the Hazard Communication Program (which almost all employers maintain).
UPDATED ANSWER (March 30, 2020)
Yes, you should require any employee who becomes ill at work with COVID-19 coronavirus symptoms to notify their supervisor. Employees who are suffering from symptoms should be directed to remain at home until they are symptom-free for at least 24 hours. While outside of work, if an employee begins experiencing symptoms, has been exposed to someone that is exhibiting symptoms, or has tested positive, the employee should contact your company by telephone or email and should not report to work.
UPDATED QUESTION & ANSWER (March 16, 2020)
Yes, if your company is covered by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. The federal WARN Act imposes a notice obligation on covered employers (those with 100 or more full-time employees) who implement a “plant closing” or “mass layoff” in certain situations, even when they are forced to do so for economic reasons. It is important to keep in mind that these quoted terms are defined under WARN's regulations, and that they are not intended to cover every single layoff or plant closing.
Generally speaking, employers must provide at least 60 calendar days of notice prior to any covered plant closing or mass layoff — which can be triggered with a layoff of as few as 50 employees under federal law (potentially less under applicable state laws). Note, however, that if employees are laid off for less than six months, then they do not suffer an employment loss and, depending on the particular circumstances, notice may not be required. Unfortunately, in situations like this, it is hard to know how long the layoff will occur and notice cannot be provided retroactively, so providing notice is usually the best practice.
In cases where its notice requirements would otherwise apply, the WARN Act provides a specific exception when layoffs or plant closings occur due to unforeseeable business circumstances, or are the result of a natural disaster. These provisions may apply to the COVID-19 coronavirus. But due to the fact-specific analysis required, these exceptions are often litigated.
Moreover, these exceptions are limited, in that an employer relying upon them must still provide “as much notice as is practicable, and at that time shall give a brief statement of the basis for reducing the notification period.” In other words, once you are in a position to evaluate the immediate impact of the outbreak upon your workforce, you must then provide specific notice to “affected employees” (as well as unions and government entities, as discussed below) as soon as practicable. You must also provide a statement explaining the failure to provide more extensive notice, which in this case would obviously be tied to the unforeseeable nature of the outbreak and its aftermath.
The WARN Act has specific provisions requiring notice to employees, unions and certain government entities. The Act further specifies the specific information that must be contained in each notice. Even a seemingly minor deviation from these requirements can trigger a violation. Also keep in mind that some states have “mini-WARN” laws that may apply. Please work with your employment counsel to ensure compliant notices are provided.
Will this law really be enforced in light of the outbreak?
In the aftermath of an outbreak, the extent to which the USDOL will focus upon enforcement of the WARN Act remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the law provides stiff penalties for non-compliance, including up to 60 days of back pay and benefits, along with a civil penalty of up to $500 per day. More importantly, it provides for a private cause of action in federal court, suggesting that employers may soon be responding to lawsuits arising under the WARN Act regardless of the enforcing agency's official position.
Consequently, we advise that you evaluate your current situations to ascertain whether the most recent outbreak has triggered a WARN Act qualifying event in your organization. If so, provide as much notice to affected employees as is practicable under the circumstances. When in doubt, the best approach is to work through counsel to arrive at a safe but practical solution to a potentially thorny situation for many employers that are impacted by the outbreak, either directly or indirectly.
UPDATED ANSWER (March 30, 2020)