As the outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus gains momentum and potentially begins to spread in North America, employers will have to start considering what steps they can take to protect their workers while fulfilling their legal obligations.

Employers are in a difficult position because it is likely that the workplace would be a significant source of transmission among people. And if you have employees in occupations that may be of higher risk of contracting the virus, you could be required to take certain measures to comply with OSHA’s General Duty Clause.

On top of that, if you have workers who come down with the virus, you will need to consider how you’re going to deal with sick leave issues. Additionally, workers who are sick or have a family member who is stricken may ask to take time off under the Family Medical Leave Act.

Coronavirus explained

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the virus is transmitted between humans from coughing, sneezing and touching, and it enters through the eyes, nose and mouth.

Symptoms include a runny nose, a cough, a sore throat, and high temperature. After two to 14 days, patients will develop a dry cough and mild breathing difficulty. Victims also can experience body aching, gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea.

Severe symptoms include a temperature of at least 100.4ºF, pneumonia, and kidney failure.

Employer concerns

OSHA — OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires an employer to protect its employees against “recognized hazards” to safety or health which may cause serious injury or death.

According to an analysis by the law firm Seyfarth Shaw: If OSHA can establish that employees at a worksite are reasonably likely to be “exposed” to the virus  (likely workers such as health care providers, emergency responders, transportation workers), OSHA could require the employer to develop a plan with procedures to protects its employees.

Protected activity — If you have an employee who refuses to work if they believe they are at risk of contracting the coronavirus in the workplace due to the actual presence or probability that it is present there, what do you do?

Under OSHA’s whistleblower statutes, the employee’s refusal to work could be construed as “protected activity,” which prohibits employers from taking adverse action against them for their refusal to work.

Family and Medical Leave Act — Under the FMLA, an employee working for an employer with 50 or more workers is eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they have a serious health condition. The same applies if an employee has a family member who has been stricken by coronavirus and they need to care for them.

The virus would likely qualify as a serious health condition under the FMLA, which would warrant unpaid leave.

What to do

Here’s what health and safety experts are recommending you do now:

  • Consider restricting foreign business trips to affected areas for your employees.
  • Perform medical inquiries to the extent legally permitted.
  • Impose potential quarantines for employees who have traveled to affected areas. Ask them to get a fitness-for-duty note from their doctor before returning to work.
  • Educate your staff about how to reduce the chances of them contracting the virus, as well as what to do if they suspect they have caught it.

If you have an employee you suspect has caught the virus, experts recommend that you:

  • Advise them to stay home until symptoms have run their course.
  • Advise them to seek out medical care.
  • Make sure they avoid contact with others.
  • Contact the CDC and local health department immediately.
  • Contact a hazmat company to clean and disinfect the workplace.
  • Grant leaves of absence and work from home options for anyone who has come down with the coronavirus.

If there is a massive outbreak in society, consider whether or not to continue operating. If you plan to continue, put a plan in place. You may want to:

  • Set a plan ahead of time for how to continue operations.
  • Assess your staffing needs in case of a pandemic.
  • Consider alternative work sites or allowing staff to work from home.
  • Stay in touch with vendors and suppliers to see how they are coping.
  • Consider seeking out alternative vendors should yours suddenly be unable to work.

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