With the rise in Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the United States, employers are understandably concerned about what this means for their business. As an employer, the main focus that should be emphasized is safety of employees. In addition, now would also be a good time to review policies and procedures that are in place regarding sick leave to reduce legal risk.

It’s important to note that employees in the United States are protected by an act called the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Under this act, employers could potentially face some legal ramifications in the event an employee were to get infected with Coronavirus at work. This is why it’s crucial to take proper precautionary steps to ensure your business is well prepared during this time.

To help better prepare, here are some steps that can be taken as an employer to minimize risk of employee infection of Coronavirus as well as some of the legal risks involved by not preparing.

Keep informed

A good starting point for employers is to stay up to date with key sources of public health. From time to time, recommended or mandated actions may be made by the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or The World Health Organization.

It’s important to stay informed of these mandates because sometimes they may mean implementing organization wide policy changes for a period of time. Doing so will demonstrate that your company is making efforts to be in alignment with official recommendations. Not doing so may demonstrate a lack of compliance on the part of the organization to protect employees.

Over-communicate and Promote Workplace Hygiene

Now is also the time to regularly communicate with employees the steps in order to keep safe in the workplace. Make it clear to staff that your company is serious about keeping the workplace environment safe and as cleanly as possible.

Companies need to be able to demonstrate that they have provided workers accurate information regarding how they can prevent the spread of infection. Companies also need to show that they have provided workers the ability to act on the information they have been given to reduce risk. It’s also a good idea to direct employees to the source of these recommendations so that they can better educate themselves as well. Namely, businesses may expose themselves to liability if employees were to get infected and failed to communicate policy on risk reduction.

In addition to open and frequent communication, employers need to take measures to ensure reduction of infection risk. This includes giving employees access to hand washing facilities as well as hand sanitation dispensers. Other measures include disinfecting surfaces such as doorknobs and using disinfectant air spray throughout the workplace to eliminate germs.

Staff who show symptoms of being sick should be sent home and instructed to stay home to reduce risk of infection to other workers.

Place a Temporary Policy on Returning to Work

Employers cannot place restrictions on workers without cause because of potential discrimination reasons. However, if an employee poses a threat to other employees because of risk of infection, a policy temporarily restricting return to work may be justified in effort to keep other employees safe from infection. The policy should be written, documented and communicated with employees.

Adhere to an Employer’s Duty of Care

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), employers are required to provide employees a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” This means that an employer can face legal ramifications in the event a hazard is recognized and steps are not taken to reduce or eliminate the hazard.

Something else to consider is that if harm does comes to an employee through their employment, they may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

If your business services customers at its location, third party liabilities are also a factor to consider. While an employee who gets infected on the job would be entitled to workers’ comp, if a customer were to get infected while at your workplace, they may try to sue your company for larger damages.

Evaluate Leave and Pay of Employees

Employers should review their obligations to employees who require leave from sickness and if policies need to be at all adjusted. This may include things such as if benefits need to be expanded during this time, as well as if income protection levels need to be adjusted during leave.

Though an employer may not be legally required to pay an employee for an extended leave, this could actually backfire if not. The reason is that if the employee is still contagious, he or she may try and return to work sooner to resume normal pay. But doing so opens the risk of infecting other workers, which as noted in the previous point, opens the door to other legal trouble in the event other employees become sick from the employee who returned too soon.

Be Sensitive to Stress and Anxiety of Employees

There is no question that the fear of the Coronavirus has affected many people physiologically. Because of this, it is important to be sensitive to the concerns of employees who are wary of infection in the workplace.

In the event you have an employee who expresses this level of concern, consider an arrangement with the employee such as allowing him or her to work from home for a time being, rather than termination altogether. Moreover, if you decide to terminate the employee and it is discovered this is the reason for termination, you may be looking at a potential lawsuit because of violation of disability laws that protect mental health. The best thing to do is be accommodating to employees and offer temporary accommodations when necessary.

Protect Employee Privacy

In effort to reduce the possibility of breach of privacy for employees, it’s import to fully understand what personal health information your employees would need to disclose in the event they became infected.

With the Coronavirus, an employee’s health information would need to be disclosed to authorities for obvious public health reasons. However, if need be, it should be done in a manner that protects the employee’s privacy and handled according to proper protocol.

Plan for Extreme Cases

The uncertainty and threat Coronavirus presents has understandably left many business owners guessing what necessary steps to take, and how best to prepare. During this time, it’s best to have a contingency plan in place in the event leave of absences or layoffs are required.

If this is necessary, it’s important to understand the proper procedure to handle these matters. Failing to adhere to procedure may open the door to penalties for companies and possible personal liability among leadership in some cases.

If you have additional questions about the legal obligations for companies around Coronavirus, we encourage you to contact us.

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