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
- If an employer has employees who have recently traveled to China or other locations where the coronavirus is widespread, it should consider whether and when to require those employees to work from home, or take leave.
- Employees who may have been exposed and who exhibit symptoms should be required to work from home or use leave. Notably, the EEOC has said that sending an employee who displays symptoms of contagious illness home from work would not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act because the illness may turn out to be a relatively mild illness which would not meet the definition of a disability under the Act, or if it is a more severe illness that would be considered a disability, then the employer’s actions would likely be warranted under a direct threat analysis. Employers should consider making it clear in their policy that employees who have symptoms of potential contagious diseases must not report to work while they are sick.
- Employers should also consider other steps to prevent the spread of communicable diseases in the workplace, such as providing hand sanitizer and ensuring that cafeterias and bathrooms are disinfected regularly.
- Public health officials are currently stating that the spread of coronavirus in the US is not expected to be severe, but employers should monitor the CDC website, and if the situation changes, they may wish to consider allowing employees to work from home.
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.