With the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 being reported in multiple states, it’s time to think about how to handle instances of the illness in the workplace. As you do, keep in mind that your employees are likely entitled to take at least unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if they or a family member gets seriously ill.
If you don’t have a policy covering communicable diseases, now would be a good time to consider one. Should sick workers stay home? It might be wise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people are contracting a milder form of COVID-19 and may not realize their illness is part of the epidemic. Consider telling your employees to stay home if they have any type of respiratory illness or signs of a fever.
The CDC says that getting sick workers to stay home is the most effective thing employers can do.
If you are altering your general policy to allow more workers to take sick leave or work from home, consider having the same rules for non-employee contractors. Tell your staffing agency to encourage sick workers to stay home.
While you may generally require a doctor’s note for sick leave, consider putting aside that rule during the outbreak, since many medical providers are overwhelmed with sick people. Moreover, sitting in a waiting room with other sick people may actually spread the disease. Therefore, the CDC is encouraging people to contact their doctors by phone or online.
Since encouraging sick workers to stay home is so important, you may actually want to consider paying your employees to do so. Even if no state or local ordinance requires paid sick leave, there may be a business case for providing it. This is to ensure that a sick worker doesn’t come in simply because they can’t afford to take the day off.
Managing reduced staff and workers who may be sick
It may not be realistic to allow your entire staff to take a few days off, and it’s therefore likely that you will have a sick worker come in. If they are obviously sick, send them home. In borderline cases, try to separate the sick employees from the healthy ones.
- You can minimize the risk of the disease spreading by encouraging hand washing and reducing face-to-face contact. Cut back on large congregations of people in meetings. Consider canceling any non-urgent travel.
- Try to encourage people to avoid physical contact in the workplace, at least for now. Instead of exchanging handshakes with clients, opt for a smile and a wave.
- Also encourage respiratory etiquette. Tell your workers to cough into their sleeve and to sneeze into a tissue. Provide tissues and hand sanitizer, if available.
- Clean all the frequently touched surfaces in your workplace with the cleaner you generally use. These include workstations, countertops and doorknobs, for example.
- If someone becomes ill while traveling, make sure they know the company’s policy for getting medical care in other cities or abroad.
If you have a confirmed COVID-19 case in your workplace
Keep in mind that an employee’s illness is confidential medical information and should not be revealed. That said, you may make a general announcement that COVID-19 has been found in the workplace and that you are conducting a risk assessment.
Hopefully, this outbreak of COVID-19 will be over soon, with limited illnesses. In the meantime, consider the benefits and downsides of offering more paid sick time and encouraging workers to take it. Consider encouraging work from home, where possible.