Infectious Disease Outbreak Plan: Considerations for Employers Preparing for Coronavirus
The recent spread of the coronavirus 2019 (also referred to as COVID-19) has become a cause of concern for many people worldwide. Employers and employees alike may be curious how this could impact the workplace. As the global medical community collectively works to contain the disease, preparedness is key. Employers across the U.S. may have to adjust work and sick-leave policies, and consider the implementation of their infectious disease outbreak plan and/or business continuity plan, or develop one if they do not already have an existing one.
How are businesses responding to coronavirus?
Here is a look at issues employers may have to handle in the wake of COVID-19, to protect both their employees and the business.
Know the facts
It’s important to find and refer to authoritative sources to help you understand the facts around COVID-19.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, published "Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers" that will likely be updated as more data becomes available. This may be a useful starting point for employers and individuals.
Also, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has compiled a useful guide on coronavirus information and FAQs.
The situation this pandemic has created is widespread, fluid, and circumstances often change - employers should continue to reference reliable sources of information regularly.
Communications and workplace policy changes
Employers can help disseminate information about coronavirus and other infectious diseases to their workforce, again from trusted sources like the CDC. More importantly, employers should be ready to implement strategies that protect their workforce and to make employees aware of actions designed to keep them safe in the workplace.
As part of the information-sharing process, consider providing employees with a detailed explanation of your planned or existing sick-leave policy. During this health crisis, take time to reassess company policies such as sick leave allowances. For example, a current policy may outline a cap on the number of sick days an employee is permitted to take, but a worker may feel obligated to come back to work when they are still ill after reaching their limit.
Before making any changes to your policies, you may first want to review employees’ rights to unpaid and paid leave under the FMLA, state and local paid sick leave as well as paid family and medical leave programs. For example, you may have employees who want to self-quarantine to keep themselves away from anyone in the office who may potentially be sick. Can you as an employer cap the number of employees who ask to take time off? The answer will vary depending on the individual state paid sick leave law.
Also, be careful about making any policy decisions that suggest unlawful discrimination against an employee based on their national origin. If you are uncertain about the requirements that apply to your business, you may want to work with an experienced HR professional.
Another important factor to consider is what you, as an employer, choose to do when any type of illness may be going around the office, including a respiratory illness such as COVID-19. For instance, you may encourage employees to stay home during flu season if they are showing symptoms. The same goes for you: showing up to work sick while urging others to behave differently can set a poor example, and may lead other workers to follow this example.
To be certain everyone is on the same page with respect to your company's sick-leave policies, consider a full-scale communications effort to address the topic. You may want to outline in detail the extent of your current sick-leave policy and, if you are making changes to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, spell out all the information as clearly as possible.
It is a good idea to appoint an HR representative (or similarly informed company representative) to become knowledgeable on the situation and to act as a contact for employees who may have questions or concerns.
Evaluate work-from-home policies
In the wake of coronavirus concerns, companies may consider expanding or adopting a work-from-home or remote working policy for employees, even if it’s on a short-term or temporary basis.
Employers should also consider exempt vs. non-exempt employee status and the potential impact on pay for work-at-home employees.
Many companies have decided to curtail or completely suspend business travel. Businesses in general are also re-examining the value of business travel to other locations, due to the continuing spread of this infectious disease. Businesses should continue to monitor travel advisories.
Experts recommend paying close attention to national and international travel advisories, as well as any specific concerns issued by reliable public health authorities. Any recommended or proposed business travel restrictions should be carefully reviewed, and employers should make sure that employees are fully informed about any travel-related risks.
Keep in mind that businesses cannot restrict an employee’s personal travel decisions.
What you can do to help maintain a safe, healthy work environment
Whether it is the current coronavirus outbreak, flu season, or any other time of year, employers can communicate some general best practices to staff members to ensure a safe and healthy work environment. It is imperative that employers develop a comprehensive written plan that outlines steps being taken to protect employees against infectious diseases, especially for COVID-19. An Exposure Control Plan should include the following:
- Detailed account of how the employer is addressing the risks to employees posed by this disease
- Evaluation of potential changes to (or refinements to the use of) personal protection equipment (PPE)
- Administrative controls being implemented to help curb spread of the disease
- Modifications to existing personnel policies to include updated requirements regarding work separation and staggered shifts
This type of comprehensive plan is beneficial to employees (and, by extension, to the entire organization) to have in place. At the same time, documentation of this kind is essential, if and when an employer is contacted by OSHA to ascertain its degree of preparedness with respect to COVID-19.
Here is a template for an infectious disease preparedness plan to help your business cope with this ongoing crisis.
Infection preventive measures
As noted in this article, basic infection preventive measures should cover essential steps every employee must take to protect themselves and their co-workers. These measures include:
- Frequent and thorough handwashing
- Instructions to stay at home if an employee feels sick
- Eliminate the sharing of work tools and equipment
- Regular cleaning and disinfecting of office surfaces and equipment, as well as all other aspects of the workplace environment
Various workplace controls have worked effectively against prior disease outbreaks such as SARS. Such controls include:
- Installation of high-efficiency air filters
- Expanded rates of ventilation in the workplace
- Added physical barriers where appropriate (i.e., clear plastic sneeze guards)
- A drive-through window for customer service
Other refinements of work policy and/or procedures may be necessary to ensure employee safety. In addition to encouraging sick people to stay home, contact amongst employees and customers should be significantly modified. Suggested administrative controls include:
- Replace face-to-face meetings with virtual communications
- Suspend any non-essential travel
- Implement emergency communications policies
- Continually provide fact-based education and training on COVID-19 risk factors
- Offer training, as needed, to employees in the use of protective clothing and equipment.
All or much of the above can be included in the written COVID-19 exposure control plan. These recommendations can be modified to fit a particular employer's work conditions and having a plan in place will help reassure both employees and customers alike that all sensible precautions are being taken to protect their well-being.
For more information, be sure to review OSHA’s guidelines on COVID-19.
Have a business continuity plan in place
The COVID-19 outbreak is only the latest threat to warrant implementation of a business continuity plan (BCP) in your workplace.
Documenting steps to follow in the event of a disruption (whether it be a pandemic, natural disaster, loss of power, large-scale cybercrime, etc.) can be the key to your company's long-term survival. A BCP involves identifying potentially disastrous events that may affect your company and assembling a list of procedures that detail how to respond to, operate during, and recover from these specific threats.
Though business continuity plans may appear complex and time-consuming, even a basic set of policies and procedures can be useful. Both large and small companies can be impacted by business interruptions, but smaller companies may not have acquired the necessary financial resources to quickly recover after a period of downtime.
It is important that everyone in your company is informed of the details of your BCP and/or infectious disease outbreak plan. Depending on your business, customers should also be informed of the impact of your BCP plan on service.
- Inform them about their roles and give them the opportunity to practice business continuity procedures.
- Document the intended methods of communication in the event of an emergency — via text message, phone, or email. Written instructions included in a small business continuity plan should categorize additional job responsibilities.
Policies and procedures can help guide employees until conditions return to a business-as-usual environment.
Taking the initiative to update customers on a continuity plan demonstrates a proactive and committed approach. To maintain customer relationships through a crisis, plan to communicate with clients in a variety of ways, such as:
- Updated website information
- Communicating via social media channels
- Contact key customers by phone or email
Assure customers they have ways to stay in touch with your business during a crisis. Providing a range of communication methods before a business interruption occurs may help ease customers’ uncertainty if and when a serious situation arises.
People may be concerned about infectious disease control both in and out of the workplace. As an employer, you can take appropriate preventative actions – obtaining and continuing to stay informed of the facts, reviewing company policies including sick-leave policies, work at home policies and business travel plans, and doing everything possible to promote a safe work environment – to help keep your business thriving during difficult times.
Take this opportunity to check your current policies and procedures, and reach out to HR and workplace experts like Paychex to ensure you and your business are ready for whatever comes next.