Coronavirus in the Workplace — What Employers Need to Know
- Human Resources
6 min. Read
Last Updated: 10/12/2020
Table of Contents
The potential for Coronavirus in the workplace is a challenge employers must face, as some businesses slowly begin the process of reopening this fall. But with that may come concerns about how to keep the business afloat while protecting the health and safety of staff and customers. And while comprehensive COVID-19 resources for employers are available, your leadership can help to lessen the virus's potential impact on your people and your business.
It's up to employers to maintain a safe and healthy workplace for their employees and customers, by incorporating applicable federal, state, and sometimes local reopening orders. Reopening orders can include guidance around workers' compensation coverage, workplace safety guidelines, PPE, and the availability of leave laws. Doing so may help to reduce the possibility of both a COVID-19 outbreak in the workplace and business shutdowns or interruptions and may help with employee retention
What is COVID-19?
According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause a range of illnesses from the common cold to severe diseases such as MERS, and SARS. In December 2019, a new coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, China, and in February 2020, the World Health Organization proposed an official name for the disease: COVID-19. The virus that causes COVID-19 is a different strain than other respiratory viruses and information about it is evolving.
What can I do to protect my employees and business?
Whether your business stayed open with employees in office or your employees are returning to the physical workplace, establishing and applying fact-based criteria that is consistent with governmental guidance and your business needs and documenting the reasons for your decisions is important. Remember to also review the requirements in any written employment agreements, or collective bargaining agreements as well as applicable federal, state and local laws
Protection in the workplace
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends simple, everyday preventative actions to help curb the spread of respiratory viruses.
- Maintain 6 feet of distance around people who are sick and people who don’t live in your household
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a mask when around others
Additionally, experts suggest continuing to:
- Meet virtually with clients and co-workers
- Avoid large work gatherings such as conferences
- Limit travel, especially non-essential business travel
- Review or develop your company's business continuity plan
Employers may also require employees to wear safety equipment like face/eye protection, gowns, gloves, or other equipment suggested or required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA or state or local safety agencies), and should review the guidance published on OSHA's website for recommended practices.
If either state law, local guidance, or the employer requires employees to wear protective equipment in the workplace, the employer must pay for the required equipment. Additional requirements may also apply if your business is already subject to OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens standard or other state or federal industry-specific requirements.
Some states, counties, or cities require certain employers to provide masks, other face coverings, or gloves for employees. For more information, please review your jurisdiction’s applicable COVID-19 resources.
How to create a safety plan for your business and employees
Employers should be proactive in their planning and communications to help reduce the chance of COVID-19 spreading in the workplace and to help ensure compliance with jurisdictional regulatory obligations.
Appropriate planning may include:
- Developing policies and procedures addressing workplace hygiene
- More frequent cleaning and disinfecting
- Social distancing and workplace modifications
- The use of face coverings or other protective equipment
- Staggering work schedules or offering telework
- Employee screening measures that are consistent with directives and guidance from the CDC and federal, state, and local authorities.
Employers should also develop policies to comply with applicable leave laws and to encourage employees to stay home or leave the workplace if they become sick.
Consider the importance of maintaining an open-door policy to receive and address any employee concerns regarding workplace safety or health. Employers should communicate their plans to employees in order to reassure them that appropriate protocols and benefits will be provided. It's important for employers to help mitigate risk by doing their best to resolve any concerns an employee brings forward, including investigating and rectifying a safety concern, if warranted. Employees who raise concerns in good faith are protected from retaliation.
Employers should also be aware of potential liability for discrimination or other violations. Broadly speaking, these may include:
- Negligence for not maintaining a safe workplace
- Data privacy and confidentiality issues related to medical information
- American with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations
- Hiring practices and return-to-work selection
- Issues related to benefits administration (COBRA or state continuation notices, unpaid PTO, compliance with recently implemented COVID-19 leave legislation, etc.)
Business owners can consult their legal advisors for guidance in avoiding these liability issues. They can also seek guidance in the area of implementing COVID-19 testing.
Can I test my employees for COVID-19?
Testing employees for COVID-19 may help stop the spread of the virus and help employees become more comfortable with the idea of returning to work. Prior to the implementation of testing, employers are encouraged to consult legal counsel or their HR professional to help them understand the legal issues surrounding the lawful use of different types of employee screening.
At present, best practices for screening may include the following use cases:
An employee exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms may be removed from the workplace and the employer may be able to require that the employee be tested before being allowed to return to work.
When an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, employers may be able to remove other staff members who have had close contact with that employee from the workplace, and provide them with screening kits.
At some point, employers of essential workforces may be required to ensure screening for all employees at regular intervals.
How can I test my employees?
Paychex offers access to viral-marker (antigen) testing through HireRight, a leading background screening company. This testing screens for an active COVID-19 infection. Positive results indicate that the employee may be infectious to others. Paychex does not offer antibody testing at this time, which would indicate a prior infection.
The product offering enables employers to order self-administered kits and provide them to their employees, who will self-test. The employee sends their completed test directly to the lab in a pre-paid overnight package included in the kit. Results are relayed to the employee and can be accessed by the employer through the Paychex secure system. (This can only take place after the employee completes an applicable authorization and release forms.)
What to consider when selecting a COVID-19 testing partner
Employees may test through their own health providers or public testing centers, but employers are not privy to the results unless the employee agrees to share their results. When looking for a testing partner, employers should consider their use case (defined as a particular incidence in which a product or service can possibly be employed) and are encouraged to consult legal counsel or their HR professional. Factors relating to a coronavirus test cost may include expenses for test kits, analysis, reporting, and shipping to both the lab and a home address. Businesses should ask which costs are included in a coronavirus test kit package, and which costs are considered additional.
An employee tests positive for COVID-19. What's next?
If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, it's crucial to take steps to contain the further spread of the virus in the workplace while also being mindful of restrictions regarding confidentiality.
Step 1: Identify individuals with whom the employee came in contact
The employer should determine all individuals who worked in close proximity of the employee while they had symptoms and during the two days before the symptoms began. Employers also may have an obligation to report the positive test to a health agency. However, employers are encouraged to consult legal counsel or their HR professional to discuss their obligations.
Step 2: Self-quarantine
Along with some state and local quarantine regulations, the CDC FAQs recommend employers follow the Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure and have those employees that came in contact with the infected individual self-quarantine for 14 days or telework due to their potential COVID-19 exposure. However, the employer should take care not to disclose the name of the infected employee to anyone except when notifying health officials.
Telecommuting may be a viable option for quarantined employees. An employee may work at home, , or in a satellite location for all or part of their workweek. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers are now requiring non-essential employees to work from home exclusively.
Step 3: Contact your workers' compensation carrier
Keep in mind that your workers' compensation carrier may need to be contacted, especially if contact tracing shows that the employee may have contracted COVID-19 in the workplace.
Step 4: Conduct a thorough cleaning of the workplace
You should take recommended steps to shutter and clean the workplace, and follow all CDC and state or local public health department guidelines. Sick employees should be asked to stay home from work until they meet the CDC’s criteria to return or can provide a note from their health care provider clearing them to return to work, unless prohibited under jurisdictional laws.
A strict sanitation and cleaning procedure throughout the workplace may entail closing down the workplace temporarily while the sanitation process is underway. Make sure that the cleaning team you hire for the job follows CDC guidelines for COVID-19 cleaning along with any industry specific specifications where applicable.
How to care for vulnerable employees
Some employees may be more susceptible to serious complications as a result of a COVID-19 infection, such as those over the age of 65 or who have certain underlying medical conditions. Employers should be mindful of their responsibilities to vulnerable employees under applicable disability, leave, and sick time laws during the pandemic and particularly if there is a COVID-19 case in the workplace.
It's extremely important that employers do not in any way discriminate against employees with a disability or who are members of another protected class (i.e., older employees). Employers should always consult with legal counsel regarding the treatment of these individuals.
If an employee discloses that they are considered vulnerable, employers should engage in the interactive process with the employee to determine whether job modification and/or reasonable accommodations can be provided. Any medical information received should be protected and stored in a confidential medical file, separate from personnel files. Reasonable accommodations may include but are not limited to telework, leave, personal protective equipment (PPE), temporary re-assignment, or other safety measures aimed at reducing the likelihood of a workplace COVID-19 exposure.
What leave and paid time off options are available?
In the event that an employee contracts, is exposed to COVID-19 or has another qualifying reason, the employee may be eligible for paid time off under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), or other federal state and local laws. Employers should consult with legal counsel or their HR professional to carefully assess applicable requirements to provide time off.
How can I assess and reassess my COVID-19 plan?
Effective risk mitigation involves active planning and responsiveness, but it also includes regularly reviewing plans and adjusting them as needed based on evolving circumstances and guidance. The conditions of and guidance for the COVID-19 pandemic change frequently. Appropriately responding to an employee's COVID-19 diagnosis can not only help to reduce your business's potential liability, it can also serve as a source of reassurance to your employees during this uncertain time.
Are states providing updates on COVID-19?
Almost every state and many local jurisdictions have created specific resource pages addressing COVID-19 for its residents. Learn what your state is doing about responding to the COVID-19 pandemic
What else should I be considering as part of my business's recovery efforts?
Providing ongoing and as-needed support for your staff can go a long way in your business's ability to navigate this challenging time. So too can looking into business financing options.
Providing employee support
Among the many resources you can provide to your workforce, an employee assistance program, or EAP, is one way to respond to help support employees experiencing anxiety about returning to work. EAPs may also help improve engagement and productivity, increase morale, improve employee health, and even reduce absenteeism and turnover. An EAP provides a confidential source that employees can use to find support and resources for certain challenges they face. The service is usually provided as part of a larger benefits package and connects employees to assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services. Depending on the situation, employees can access certain services from the safety and privacy of their own home.
Finding additional business funding
To cope with the challenges presented by COVID-19, employers have a range of financing options to keep their businesses well-funded and operating smoothly. Traditional lenders have expanded their application processes to approve business funding that would have been rejected in the past, and other nontraditional lenders are taking advantage of emerging technology to offer financing in ways that weren't prevalent even 15 to 20 years ago.
When looking into business funding sources, it's a good idea to research solutions that apply to your unique business and industry.
How can I continue to stay informed?
Visit the Paychex COVID-19 Help Center as well as the resources provided by government agencies (i.e., The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OSHA, EEOC, and state and local agencies) for more information.
Paychex offers a screening product that is available to all employers , including non-current Paychex customers through our Employee Screening Service. Customers who are already on the Paychex Employee Screening Service (PESS) platform can add COVID-19 Screening to their account for ordering. They can pre pay for screens in bulk or order them on an as needed basis.