The coronavirus pandemic grows bigger day by day, bringing a new set of challenges to the workplace. To counter these challenges, employers must make sure they have proper responses in place or risk potential litigation. Companies should employ best practices that focus on employee safety and legal preparedness to avoid any future legal ramifications.

Best Practices on Responding to Coronavirus in the Workplace

Here are 10 best practices on how employers can legally respond to coronavirus in the workplace.

  1. Stay informed on coronavirus developments
  2. Ensure clear communication with employees
  3. Intensify all hygiene efforts
  4. Consider offering remote work for employees
  5. Impose guidelines before allowing employees to return to work
  6. Create a safe, clean work environment
  7. Evaluate leave and pay policies
  8. Ease stress and anxiety in the workplace
  9. Respect employee privacy
  10. Have a plan in motion for the worst-case scenario

Regularly monitor developments

Stay up to date on the current state of the virus. Employers should conduct additional research regarding officially recommended and mandated actions from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The World Health Organization when making any decisions about health- and legal-risk mitigation. Demonstrate that corporate policy is aligned with official recommendations.  This will go a long way in creating a legal safeguard to any challenges to the company’s infection-control policies.

Communicate regularly with employees

Communicate openly and regularly to your employees to provide them with the information they need. For legal and practical reasons, companies need to show that they took the steps to educate their employees about modes of transmission, symptoms of the coronavirus (or any virus), and specific safety measures on how to prevent the spread. Employers should also direct staff to resources and official sources of information to ensure further legal safeguards.

Also, employers should instruct their employees to inform management if they have been exposed or show any symptoms. Those that do show symptoms should be sent home or instructed to stay home for at least five days to contain the virus. Failure to communicate this policy can expose the company to potential liability should the virus spread within the workplace.

Reinforce hygiene practices

Intensify hygiene efforts to reduce the risk of coronavirus in the workplace and potential liabilities. These hygiene efforts should follow public health guidelines, which include:

  • Easy access to hand-washing facilities and/or hand sanitizers;
  • Routine sanitation of public surfaces such as counters, doorknobs, and elevator buttons;
  • Enforcing “social distancing” strategies; and
  • Urging employees to stay home when they are sick.

Employers should ensure that they maintain adequate supplies in the workplace, including tissues, soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, and hand wipes to facilitate these efforts.

Consider remote work

Consider authorizing remote work for all employees to reduce face-to-face contact. Since coronavirus is airborne and easily transmissible, increasing the distance among employees through remote work can reduce the risk of exposure. Doing so will also protect the organization from any potential liabilities that may arise in the future.

Place restrictions on returning to work

Consider imposing restrictions on which employees can return to work. Precautionary measures should be taken towards employees coming back from a vacation or work trip, and even those recovering from an illness. While employers can’t restrict employees based on grounds of race or national origin at the risk of discrimination claims, they can impose reasonable, fact-based restrictions if there is a direct threat to the health and safety of others. With medical input or by applying official health guidelines, an employer can restrict whether and when an employee who has been ill or may have been exposed can return to work. As it stands, employers should have clear written policies documenting when employees with potentially transmissible illnesses will and will not be allowed back to invalidate potential litigation claims.

Provide a safe working environment

Create a safe and clean environment for employees. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), employers have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace “free from recognized hazards … likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” If employers fail to take steps to prevent the hazard, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can cite employers for the violation. As such, following the official health guidelines is an extremely crucial step for all employers.

Be mindful of leave and pay policies

Analyze employee leave and pay policies and see whether they need to be more flexible and consistent with public health guidance. Employers in the U.S. have legal obligations to provide employees with leave in the event of sickness or disability through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and state workers’ compensation law. Noncompliance with these policies can lead to serious lawsuits, so companies should consider the circumstances and decide whether they want to extend or expand benefits and protections. Employers should also be mindful of new bills or laws being passed that may temporarily expand sick leave and family leave and when they are no longer in effect. Acts such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and Supplemental Paid Sick Leave are just two of the acts employers should be aware of.

Alleviate panic in the workplace

Dispel rumors and myths about the virus and try to ease tensions in the workplace. Employers should be aware that stress and anxiety arising from the virus could become a legal concern. For example, mental health conditions, such as germaphobia, can prevent employees from coming into work. But since these conditions may be protected as a disability under laws such as the American with Disabilities Act, employers should take a modified approach when determining how to handle these situations, such as allowing time off or remote working arrangements—or risk liabilities.

Protect privacy

Respect employee privacy. Generally, employers should protect their employees’ privacy. But when it comes to anything that could interfere with the employee’s ability to perform their job or increase the risk to other parties through workplace contact, employees may be obligated to disclose their medical information to their employers. So, employers should understand which medical data employees are legally obligated to disclose. Failure to understand which information is legal to disclose could expose the company to breach of privacy claims.

Plan for the worst-case scenario

Have a contingency plan in place. “Worst case scenario” planning can include succession planning for key decision-makers and preparing legal measures in case of furloughs and layoffs. With some jurisdictions requiring formal procedures and notifications for layoffs, planning ahead to stay compliant is an important best practice. Failure to comply can result in severe penalties and even personal liabilities.

Enforcing these 10 best practices can limit the exposure of the coronavirus in your workplace while reducing the degree of legal risks. If you are a business in need of assistance with how to approach employment matters during this time, please contact Hackler Flynn and Associates.

DISCLAIMER: Content within this post should not be considered legal advice and is for informational purposes only. Communications made through this post do not create an attorney-client relationship. Hackler Flynn & Associates is not responsible for any content that you may access from third-party resources that may be accessed through or linked to this post. Hackler Flynn & Associates is only licensed to practice in California.

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