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Coronavirus and the Workplace: What Employers Need To Know
Tuesday, January 28, 2020

News that multiple cases of the newly-identified 2019 Novel Coronavirus have reached the United States have prompted employers to think about employee safety and ways to address disease prevention in the workplace. Although, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “most American workers are not at significant risk of infection” at this time, the situation is evolving, and it is never too early for employers to consider how they can address employee concerns, help prevent an outbreak, or address one if it occurs. Employers should also be aware of legal pitfalls that they may encounter when attempting to protect their employees from the virus.

The following addresses some of the key questions employers may have regarding the Coronavirus threat.

What is the Coronavirus and How Is It Transmitted?

At this point, relatively little is known about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, more commonly known as the “Coronavirus.” According to the CDC, the initial reports of the illness originated in Wuhan, China, where people likely contracted the virus from animals at a seafood and animal market. Experts now believe that the virus is spreading from human-to-human when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to the spread of a cold or flu. However, it is still too early to know how easily the virus is transmitted between people.

What Are the Primary Symptoms of the Coronavirus?

In the confirmed cases of Coronavirus thus far, affected individuals have reported mild to severe respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the virus has led to pneumonia, kidney failure, and, in at least 100 deaths (presently, all in China), as of the time of this writing.  The CDC believes at this time that symptoms may appear within two to fourteen days after exposure.  However, some infected individuals have shown little to no symptoms.

How Can Spread of the Coronavirus Be Prevented?

Because there is presently no Coronavirus vaccine available, the CDC is recommending standard precautions to avoid the spread of respiratory viruses, such as washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or, if soap is not available, using hand sanitizer; avoiding close contact with people who are sick; staying at home when you are sick; and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.

What If My Employees Travel to China For Business?

As of January 27, 2020, the CDC has issued a level 3 health travel notice (the highest threat level) recommending that people avoid all nonessential travel to China.

Employers whose employees travel to and from China should keep in mind the following:

  • Consider whether to limit business travel to affected areas. While the current CDC travel notice does not specifically define “nonessential travel,” the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requires employers to furnish “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause the death or serious physical harm to … employees.”  Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (also referred to as OSHA) has not promulgated specific standards covering the Coronavirus, requiring employees to engage in nonessential business travel to China (or any other areas in which the risk of contagion is heightened) could create risk under the General Duty Clause, particularly in light of the CDC warning against nonessential travel.  For that reason, employers whose business may involve travel to China (or other areas that become subject to travel restrictions or otherwise experience an increase in the spread of the virus) should consider other available options for employees for the duration of the threat, such as videoconferencing.

By the same token, employers should also be prepared to respond to employees who may express concerns about traveling to affected areas due to the virus.  While an employer generally has broad discretion to decide the duties and requirements of a job and to discipline employees who fail to fulfill those requirements, as a practical matter employers may wish to consider offering employees reasonable alternatives to such travel.

Finally, while employers may implement restrictions on work-related travel to affected areas, employers should tread more carefully when attempting to police personal, non-work-related travel. That said, recent decisions in the Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits have held that the disability discrimination protections of the ADA do not apply where an employer takes an employment action based on the potential for an employee to become ill and disabled in the future.  Specifically, the Eleventh Circuit found no liability under the ADA where an employer terminated an employee who requested time off to travel to Ghana to visit family because of the perceived risk that the employee would contract the Ebola virus, due to recent outbreaks of the disease in neighboring countries.  While courts have tended to take this view, it is worth noting that the EEOC has argued on at least one occasion that an employer acting on a potential future health condition may be viewed as “regarding” an employee as disabled as long as the condition otherwise qualifies as a disability under the law.  For this reason, employers should consider the risks with imposing a ban on personal, non-work-related travel to affected areas.

  • Provide relevant safety information to employees. Employers whose employees travel to affected areas should provide information to their employees about how the Coronavirus is transmitted, its symptoms, and how to avoid exposure – utilizing trusted and reputable sources such as the CDC. Employers would be well advised to also provide these employees with resources and contact information for local health departments and the CDC.

  • Understand that employee travel may be interrupted. The Chinese government has closed transit within and out of Wuhan and certain other areas of the Hubei Province. Hong Kong has also imposed certain restrictions on travel to and from the Chinese mainland. The United States is also re-routing passengers from Wuhan, China to certain designated airports (including Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta, New York JFK, Los Angeles, and San Francisco) for enhanced screening. While screening for common viruses usually takes several hours, officials have indicated that those suspected of having the Coronavirus could be delayed for up to a day if additional screening is needed.

What Should I Do if an Employee Has Recently Traveled to China or Otherwise May Have Been Exposed to the Coronavirus?

Employers should remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) places certain restrictions on the kinds of inquiries that can be made into an employee’s medical status. Specifically, the ADA prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations, unless (1) the employer can show that the inquiry or exam is job-related and consistent with business necessity, or (2) where the employer has a reasonable belief that the employee poses a direct threat to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot otherwise be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.

According to Pandemic Preparedness Guidance published in 2009 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the midst of the H1N1 influenza outbreak, whether a particular outbreak rises to the level of a “direct threat” depends on the severity of the illness.  Employers should look to the most up-to-date assessments being made by the CDC or other public health authorities, as they relate to the employer’s location, to determine the severity level of an illness and, in turn, whether an employee who potentially has been exposed to the illness may constitute a “direct threat.”  Employers should not rely on speculation or unofficial information when making determinations about whether there is a direct threat.  At the moment, the CDC is not classifying the Coronavirus as a pandemic and has not issued a heightened threat level for the United States.  However, the situation continues to rapidly evolve and we will provide updates should additional guidance be released by the CDC or other public health officials on this important issue.

All this being said, employers should keep in mind the following when it comes to employees who have traveled to affected areas:

  • Employers need not wait until an employee returning from travel develops symptoms to inquire about exposure to the Coronavirus. Inquiring about whether an employee has traveled to an affected area or about possible exposure to a contagious illness during such travel would not constitute a disability-related inquiry.  However, as discussed below, the extent to which an employer may act on the information received will depend on the most recent information available from the CDC or other public health officials.  Further, employers inquiring into whether employees have traveled to affected areas should do so of all employees known or believed to have recently traveled, rather than directing such inquiries only to employees of certain races, ethnicities, or national origins. Finally, employers should be mindful to keep confidential all medical-related information received from an employee, in accordance with the ADA.

  • Under certain circumstances, employers may require employees who have traveled to areas affected by serious health threats to stay home. If the CDC or other local public health officials recommend that people who visit specified locations remain at home for several days until it is clear they do not have illness symptoms, an employer may require an employee who traveled to an affected area to remain out of work for the suggested period of time.  While presently the CDC states that individuals who may have been in close contact with someone with the Coronavirus may continue with their daily activities so long as they are not showing any symptoms, employers should continue to monitor the CDC website for further developments. In the absence of a CDC directive that employees who have traveled to affected areas stay at home, an employer who is considering requiring such employees to remain home, they should consult with counsel.

What Other Things Should Employers Be Thinking About When it Comes to the Coronavirus?

  • Employers may – and should – send employees home if they exhibit potential symptoms of contagious illnesses at work. The EEOC has said that sending an employee home who displays symptoms of contagious illness would not run afoul of the ADA’s restrictions on disability-related actions because: (i) if the illness ultimately turns out to be relatively mild or “run of the mill” (such as seasonal influenza), then it would not have constituted a covered disability in the first place; and (ii) if the illness does turn out to be severe (such that it may constitute a disability under the law), then the actions would be warranted under a direct threat analysis. In either case, an employer can send an employee home who is displaying symptoms of contagious illness, even if this is against the employee’s wishes.  Employers should also consider making clear in their policies that employees who have symptoms of a potential contagious illness must not report to work while they are sick.

  • Determine whether the FMLA or other leave laws may apply. An employee who is experiencing a serious health condition or who requires time to care for a family member with such a condition may be entitled to take unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or state-law analogues.  Employees may also be eligible for leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA or related state or local law, if the underlying condition constitutes a qualifying disability.  However, employees generally are not entitled to take FMLA or reasonable accommodation leave to stay at home to avoid getting sick (though an exception may exist where a preexisting medical condition is likely to be worsened by exposure to a contagious disease). Furthermore, employees in certain jurisdictions may be entitled to paid sick leave if needed to care for themselves or a sick family member in the event of an illness, or if their workplace or a child’s school or day care is closed due to a public health emergency.

  • Consider whether OSHA requirements may apply. While, as noted above, OSHA has not promulgated specific standards covering the Coronavirus, it has issued a notice indicating that employers should be aware of the following general standards to which employers may be subject under OSHA:

    • General Duty Clause: As discussed above, the OSHA General Duty Clause requires employers to furnish “a place of employment which [is] free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause the death or serious physical harm to … employees.” To that end, there are some readily achievable steps that employers can take to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (and other contagious illnesses) within the workplace, such as: providing hand sanitizer to employees, ensuring that surfaces and eating areas are disinfected regularly, and encouraging employees who are sick to stay home. Employers also may start to consider certain policy changes they may wish to implement in response to the Coronavirus should the situation become more severe in the U.S., such as allowing employees to work from home.

    • Personal Protective Equipment: OSHA requires that protective equipment, clothing, and barriers be provided whenever it is necessary to prevent employees from being exposed to environmental hazards. Employers are required to assess the workplace, determine if hazards are present, and if so, select and have employees use protective equipment. Employers whose employees may encounter individuals infected with the Coronavirus, such as those in the healthcare and travel industries, should begin to consider what protective equipment would be necessary to protect its workforce should the virus begin to spread within the United States.

    • Recordkeeping and Reporting Requirements: OSHA requires that certain employers keep a record of certain work-related illness and injuries (often referred to as an OSHA Form 300 log). While there is a regulatory exemption for recording instances of the standard cold and flu, OSHA has deemed the 2019 Novel Coronavirus a recordable illness when a worker is infected on the job. In addition, certain employers may be subject to reporting requirements under state and local law if they have a reasonable belief that a significant disease is present in the workplace.

    • Employers in Higher-Risk Industries: While, again, OSHA has yet to issue any standards or controls specific to Coronavirus, employers operating in industries where employees may be at a potential increased risk of exposure should prepare for the possibility that heightened requirements may be put in place. In the past, OSHA has issued such guidance for employers in industries such as healthcare, airlines, and mortuary services, such as during the MERS outbreak in 2015.

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Information about the Coronavirus is constantly developing, so employers also should continue to refer to the CDCWHO, and OSHA websites for the latest on appropriate precautions, including changes to travel notices.  Of course, we will continue to monitor this situation and report on any updates as they develop.

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