On January 30, 2020, three major events occurred: (1) the World Health Organization declared a new virus known as Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”; (2) the first confirmed instance of person-to-person spread with this virus was reported in the United States; and (3) the U.S. State Department issued its highest-level warning against travel to China, where the virus was first detected. Since then, the coronavirus outbreak has continued to spread rapidly across the world, with the recent spike in coronavirus cases in South Korea, Iran, and Italy. The outbreak has also caused economic turmoil, as just within the past two days major global stock markets plunged more than they had in years. And while many questions still remain—such as how long this epidemic will last or whether there is even a cure—one thing is certain: the need for employers to take preventive measures in the workplace amidst the current coronavirus outbreak.

Before discussing what those measures are, here are some quick facts about the virus:

  • COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that was first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019.
  • Its symptoms include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
  • As of this writing, the coronavirus outbreak has infected over 80,000 people worldwide and has killed over 2,700 people, mostly in China.
  • So far, 60 people have been diagnosed with the virus in the United States, mostly former passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan who are now in quarantine.

As these facts indicate, the people with the greatest risk of infection are those living in China. But even domestic workers, as evidenced by recent news, pose a risk of contracting the virus if they or their friends or relatives have recently been to China or other affected regions.

With that in mind, here is our top 5 list of how employers can stay immune amidst the coronavirus outbreak:

1. Limit Travel

As an initial matter, employers should strongly encourage their workers to avoid all nonessential travel to areas where the coronavirus outbreaks are high. Employers with business involving travel to those areas should consider reasonable alternatives for their workers, such as videoconferencing.

2. Engage in Open Communication

Employers should also inform workers that management is aware of and closely monitoring the coronavirus outbreak, particularly with respect to company travel to and from an affected region. If some workers have recently had overseas exposure, employers may generally inquire as to where the workers traveled or whether there was any potential exposure to a contagious illness during their travel. Asking and welcoming questions about the virus can be key to maintaining a calm work environment. Thus, without overreacting, employers should have management anticipate and prepare how to answer common questions that may be raised.

3. Reinforce Sick Leave and/or Remote Working Policies

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person may show symptoms of the coronavirus within 14 days of overseas exposure. In that situation, if workers show up feeling sick with a fever, a cough, or difficulty breathing, employers should encourage them to use their leave of absence to see a medical professional and return to work only once the symptoms disappear and/or they obtain a fitness-for-duty/return-to-work notice from their physician. If a worker refuses to do so or if the medical professional determines that a worker has contracted the coronavirus, employers may consider implementing remote working policies or requiring the worker to stay home from work to mitigate a “direct threat” to the workplace (for more information on what is a direct threat, please visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website). In short, employers should encourage workers who have returned from overseas within the past 14 days that display symptoms of the coronavirus to stay at home for a limited time period.

4. Educate Workers

It is also pertinent for employers, especially those that have workers remaining overseas, to educate workers (and themselves) on how to stay protected from exposure to the coronavirus. Employers may do so by referring to appropriate government agencies, health organizations, and other resources to learn more about the virus. For example, the CDC lists the following recommendations to help prevent the spread of the virus:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and if soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer;
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands;
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick;
  • Stay home when sick;
  • Cover coughs or sneezes with tissues, then throw the tissues in the trash; and
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

Again, while there is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, circulating these good hygiene practices to workers is the next best step for employers to stay proactive during the coronavirus outbreak.

5. Comply with Legal Obligations

Finally, there are certain legal obligations that employers have when responding to the outbreak. For example, if an employer chooses to exclude certain workers from the workplace until the incubation and transmission period has passed, it must not discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, or disability; rather, it should send home all workers that have recently been exposed to the affected regions and pose a direct threat. Employers should also review their health and safety policies and emergency response plans to ascertain that they include infectious disease protocols and comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act and various health and safety regulations. And of course, employers should be mindful to keep confidential all medical-related information received from workers, in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. For more information and guidance on specific workplace issues and policies related to the coronavirus, please contact your Troutman Sanders employment attorney. We will continue to monitor the coronavirus outbreak and provide updates as necessary.