An Employers' Guide to Navigating the Coronavirus

Mar 3, 2020

By Krista Nelson Slosburg | Related Practice: Employment

With COVID-19 spreading globally and Western Washington seemingly at the center of the United States’ outbreak, an increasing number of employers are asking how they can best protect their employees and their businesses. Below we’ve answered some of the most common questions employers are asking as we navigate this evolving public health concern.

If an employee is showing symptoms of sickness, can I require them to go home?

Yes, you can require employees who are obviously sick to go home. In an ideal world, you’ve created a culture that encourages employees to take sick leave when they need it. Yet, if an employee comes to work when they’re obviously under the weather, you can send them home. Be sure you’re treating employees consistently and not making assumptions about any health conditions, and also that you are offering employees the opportunity to use accrued paid sick leave for the absences.

Coronavirus

Can I require employees to notify us if their child’s school, daycare center, or place of worship is closed due to an outbreak?

Yes, you can request that employees notify you if their child’s school, daycare center, or place of worship is closed due to an outbreak. Also keep in mind that if a child’s school or daycare is closed due to a public health emergency, the affected employee must be allowed to use any accrued paid sick leave if they stay home to provide care for that child. If you do implement such a policy, think through in advance what your response will be if an employee notifies you of a closure. Will you require employees to work from home? For how long? You may also wish to ask employees to notify you about closures of any of their household members’ workplaces.

Can I require employees to work from home?

Working from home can be a great option in the midst of an outbreak, so long as it is not too disruptive to your business. Certain positions are more conducive to working from home, while other positions require a physical presence.

If a position lends itself to working from home, you can allow employees to telecommute or make it mandatory, so long as the employee has the tools to do so. Consider whether you’ll need to purchase additional equipment and that in some circumstances, employees may need to be reimbursed for personal equipment they are using in order to work from home. If employees are using your online network to login remotely, consider whether your security measures are up to date.

Be sure to remind employees to record all of the hours they worked and set clear expectations about things like availability and communication when working from home.

Can I require employees to use their sick leave in the event of an outbreak?

No, you cannot require employees to use their sick leave. Even if they are home due to a reason that qualifies for sick leave, such as their own illness, a family member’s illness, or because their child’s school or daycare center is closed, employees must be afforded the choice of whether or not to use their sick leave. For that reason, if you opt to close for a few days, you cannot require employees to use their sick leave to cover the absences.

Can I require my employees to get vaccinated?

While there is currently no vaccine available for COVID-19, in general, you can have a universal, consistently enforced policy that requires employees to get a vaccine, such as the seasonal flu shot, if you have a valid business reason for doing so.

However, keep in mind that you will need to make exceptions to that policy for religious and disability accommodations. Just as with other requests for accommodation, be sure to engage in the interactive process and explore what options might work best for that specific scenario. For example, if an employee has a diagnosed fear of needles, perhaps they can opt for the nasal vaccination. Or if an employee with a compromised immune system says their doctor has advised them against receiving a vaccination, make an exception for the vaccination requirement and ask them to practice extra careful handwashing.

How can I help my employees stay healthy?

Remember the basics like encouraging employees to stay home when they are sick, which means staying home for at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or signs of a fever without using fever-reducing medicines.

Encourage good handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and the use of at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

Make sure you have ample supplies of hand sanitizer and surface wipes available, and consider sterilizing highly used areas on a daily basis.

If your business includes travel, particularly air travel, consider whether employee travel is necessary or if videoconferencing offers an acceptable alternative. Adjusting travel plans could be a company-wide decision or one made on a case-by-case basis.

If you offer an Employee Assistance Plan, it may provide additional information and resources for employees. Review its terms and make sure employees are informed about what is available.

Is there anything else I should be thinking about?

Be alert to issues of discrimination, xenophobia, and misinformation. There have been a small number of reports of discriminatory conduct toward Asians and Asian-Americans because COVID-19 is believed to have originated in China. COVID-19 is not connected to any race, ethnicity, or nationality. Be alert to misinformation or discrimination in your workplace and take decisive steps to stop any behavior that stigmatizes any employee or group of employees.

It’s also important to keep in mind employee privacy rights and that disclosure of individual employees’ private health information is generally prohibited.

Up-to-date information on COVID-19 is available at the following links:

https://www.doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/Coronavirus

https://www.doh.wa.gov/Coronavirus/Workplace

https://www.doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/COVID19