Work in the Time of COVID-19: FAQs for Employers

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The coronavirus, first identified in China, was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization on January 30, 2020. Borders are being closed to travelers, airline flights suspended, and cruise passengers quarantined. What obligations do employers have when faced with the prospect of widespread and dangerous communicable diseases, such as coronavirus and the flu, invading the workplace? Essentially, all employers should adopt basic policies to prevent the spread of diseases among their employees.

Workers in the healthcare and associated research industries are currently protected by specific OSHA standards with respect to blood borne pathogens and certain communicable diseases transmitted by contact or through the air. While OSHA has been considering the adoption of a general communicable disease policy since 2012, it has never developed specific standards for general industry or construction. Specific standards, however, are not necessary.

Under OSHA, an employer owes its employees a duty to maintain a safe workplace. This “general duty” includes the taking of reasonable measures to prevent the spread of disease. Every employer, therefore, has the general duty to adopt basic policies and take action to prevent the spread of infectious diseases among its employees. Considerations include the following

Because the coronavirus is a new illness, it is difficult to predict the spread and severity of the virus within the US, so employers should frequently check the CDC website, and consult with the counsel to ensure they are taking appropriate steps to safeguard their employees.

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