How should US employers approach the coronavirus?

Click the questions below to see their answers:

  1. Should we take additional precautions? If so, what proactive steps can and should we take to keep our workplace healthy and safe?
  2. One of our employees is experiencing mild illness symptoms such as fever or cough, but the employee asked to continue working. Should we have the employee report to work?
  3. Can we require documentation from healthcare providers for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness? If so, should we?
  4. If we require an employee to stay home due to coronavirus concerns, and the employee does not have any PTO or paid sick leave to use, do we have to compensate the worker for the time away from work?
  5. If we allow employees to work remotely, do we have to provide the employees with additional equipment, or can we have employees use their own equipment (e.g., personal computer, cell phone, printer)?
  6. If an employee is quarantined for an extended period of time, what are our responsibilities as the employer?
  7. If we require an employee to obtain a fitness-for-duty certification before returning to work, do we have to pay for the employee’s out-of-pocket expenses?
  8. Our retail business is struggling and now, with the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on supply chains, customer demand and employee availability can we implement salary reductions for our exempt employees to adjust for this downturn?
  9. My employees are required to travel for work (both domestic and international) as part of their normal job duties, but many are expressing concern and reluctance to travel at this time. Can we require our employees to travel?
  10. We have an employee of Chinese descent (Employee A) who sits in a cubicle near other employees. A different employee (Employee B) has asked to move to a cubicle farther away from Employee A, citing concerns that Employee A’s family may visit from China and carry coronavirus with them. Should we agree to move Employee B?
  11. What can we do if our employee does not have any symptoms of illness, and our workplace has been symptom-free, but the employee has refused to come to work because of concerns related to coronavirus and being in large groups generally?
  12. What is our obligation if an employee cannot come to work because schools are closed and they need to care for their children?
  13. Is there any duty for an employer to report potential coronavirus cases?
  14. What can we do if our employee does not have any symptoms of illness, and our workplace has been symptom-free, but the employee has refused to come to work because of concerns related to coronavirus and being in large groups generally?
  15. How should we handle an increase in employee absences related to potential coronavirus illness or suspected illness?
  16. What is our obligation if an employee cannot come to work because schools are closed and they need to care for their children?
  17. Does an employer’s response to the virus implicate any privacy laws or regulations?

FAQ 

Should we take additional precautions? If so, what proactive steps can and should we take to keep our workplace healthy and safe?

Yes. 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 harm to . . . employees.” Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not put forth specific standards covering coronavirus (COVID-19), employers could face a risk under the General Duty Clause if they do not take affirmative steps to protect their workplace and ensure that potentially affected individuals are not exposed to the workplace.

In addition, in certain healthcare professions and other workplaces where employees are subject to bloodborne pathogens, federal workplace safety law further requires the employer to make an immediate confidential medical evaluation and follow-up available for employees that have had an exposure incident.

As a practical matter, employee morale may be affected by whether they understand that the employer has taken all necessary measures to keep employees safe on the job.

Employers should communicate with their employees to reiterate existing workplace rules, and outline any additional temporary rules, related to ensuring workplace health and safety. Employers should consider preparing a written communication to employees that outline these policies and expectations to keep employees healthy and safe in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak.

At this time, employers may wish to implement proactive, temporary policies with respect to business travel. For example, employers may suspend all non-essential business travel, and require employees to submit an application to demonstrate need before traveling for business.

Employers may consider temporarily suspending business events that involve large groups of employees (e.g., work conferences). Employers may also elect to limit in-person meetings, using alternatives such as telephonic or video conferences.

In-office protections can be utilized to prevent transmission of illness and assuage fears of transmission, such as providing face masks, hand sanitizing stations, and increasing environmental cleaning and sanitation procedures.

In the event concerns escalate (for example, if your workplace is in an affected area or if one of your employees is affected with the virus), then in-office attendance can be limited to essential personnel and additional measures put in place to limit direct interaction among employees.

One of our employees is experiencing mild illness symptoms such as fever or cough, but the employee asked to continue working. Should we have the employee report to work?

No. Employees who are ill should not come to the workplace. If an employee reports to the workplace exhibiting symptoms, the employee should be sent home immediately.

If the employee is not too ill to work:

  • For exempt employees, to the extent possible, employers should encourage flexible or remote working capabilities. Employers should work closely with exempt employees to determine if their position enables temporary remote working during the period of illness and what, if any, additional tools or technologies can assist in remote working to avoid or limit any business disruptions.
  • For non-exempt employees, employers should review whether remote work is feasible, with particular attention to the employer’s ability to ensure continued compliance with wage-hour laws during remote work times. For employers who elect to permit certain non-exempt employee positions to work remotely, additional check-in procedures and oversight should be utilized to ensure productivity and compliance with timekeeping, breaks, and other federal, state and local wage-hour considerations. Review and implement parameters regarding tracking of employee time: monitoring proper and timely meal and rest periods (if applicable); overseeing, approving and tracking overtime; and facilitating supervisor management of employees to continue to meet business needs.

If the employee is too ill to work:

  • Depending on the state of employment and the employer’s policies, the employee may be entitled to utilize accrued, unused vacation/paid time off (PTO) and/or paid sick leave during their time out of the business.
  • To further incentivize employees not to come to the workplace when they are ill, employers may want to consider advancing additional PTO or sick leave to employees who do not have any accrued, unused PTO or paid sick leave to use at this time. Employers who do not provide paid sick leave to employees may consider issuing additional paid sick leave time to employees for 2020 in response to COVID-19. In certain states, paid sick leave can be issued without any additional obligation to pay out the additional time upon termination. We recommend contacting counsel to design a state law-compliant policy.
  • Employee time out of the business may also be protected and governed by federal, state and local law.

Can we require documentation from healthcare providers for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness? If so, should we?

The answer to this question will differ based on jurisdiction (and particularly in jurisdictions that maintain state or local paid sick leave laws) and circumstance.

Federal law generally permits an employer to require reasonable documentation from healthcare providers to support the existence of an illness requiring time out of the business, or to certify the employee’s fitness to return to the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows employers to ask for employees to provide documentation from their healthcare provider to evaluate the extent of an impairment where an employee has requested an accommodation or the employer has an objective basis to believe the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of their job because of an impairment.

In some jurisdictions, state or local law may further address whether an employer may require medical documentation for an employee who requires a short-term absence for their own illness or the illness of a family member. In some cases, documentation should not be required, particularly where the employee is utilizing paid sick leave.

Moreover, at this time, the CDC recommends that employers not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, since healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be overburdened and unable to timely provide such documentation.

In response to COVID-19, employers that typically do require medical certification may want to consider temporarily relaxing the requirement of documentation from employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness due to the difficulty some employees may have obtaining access to medical providers under the present circumstances, and to encourage ill employees to remain out of the business until they are healthy.

Regardless of whether you decide to temporarily discontinue requests for documentation or continue following existing policies (as permitted by applicable laws), employers should maintain consistent policies and enforce those policies consistently (i.e., avoid disparate treatment of employees with similar symptoms). Employers are advised to consult employment counsel to address these situations.

If we require an employee to stay home due to coronavirus concerns, and the employee does not have any PTO or paid sick leave to use, do we have to compensate the worker for the time away from work?

First, if an employee who is at home feels well enough to work, the employer can allow them to do so, and should compensate them as if they are performing work from the office.

If the employee cannot work remotely, but has exhausted their paid leave options (e.g., PTO, paid sick leave), the employer is not legally obligated to compensate that employee unless company policy dictates otherwise. (Employers should continue to follow their current pay practices regarding time out of work due to illness.)

Although there may be no legal obligation to provide compensation to such employees during their time out of the business, employers might consider implementing temporary policies to incentivize employees to remain home while ill, such as one-time front-loading of additional PTO or paid sick leave time. We advise employers to consult with legal counsel regarding whether such additional time would be subject to laws regulating vacation and/or paid sick leave in your jurisdiction, such as carryover, caps and payout upon termination, and to develop a written policy in connection therewith.

If we allow employees to work remotely, do we have to provide the employees with additional equipment, or can we have employees use their own equipment (e.g., personal computer, cell phone, printer)?

Employers may generally require their employees to use their own personal devices for work-related matters. Depending on the jurisdiction, employers may be required to reimburse employees for costs associated with the use of their personal devices for work purposes.

Employers that permit employees to use their personal devices to conduct company business should consider whether this may affect the company’s ability to protect the security of company data. For instance, employers may consider implementing security measures on those personal devices to protect company data and confidentiality.

Employers should also ensure that they have written policies in place that define and communicate an employee’s expectation of privacy on their personal devices (or lack thereof), if used for work purposes.

If non-exempt employees are given remote access to perform work (e.g., access to work email on cell phone), employers should set forth the expectation that work will only be performed during working hours and on-the-clock.

If an employee is quarantined for an extended period of time, what are our responsibilities as the employer?

According to the CDC, US citizens, residents and immediate family members who have been in certain affected areas (e.g., Hubei province and other parts of mainland China) and who have been allowed to enter the United States may be subject to health monitoring and possible quarantine for up to 14 days, even if they are not currently exhibiting symptoms.

In the event an employee is subject to quarantine or isolation for an extended period of time, we recommend contacting counsel to determine the employer’s responsibilities and what protections the employee may be afforded during this time. Applicable state laws and municipal and county ordinances vary, and some require that employees be provided job-protected leave in this instance. Employee contracts or applicable collective bargaining agreements may also be instructive.

What should we do if an employee traveled through a high-risk area?

First, the employer should have a discussion with the potentially exposed employee to understand the timing, duration and extent of the travel in the high-risk area and/or exposure, and whether the employee has had any common symptoms of COVID-19. Discussion of an employee’s confidential medical information should be handled by designated individuals within the company who are trained to handle sensitive information and who are knowledgeable regarding what questions may be asked pursuant to your jurisdiction’s laws (e.g., Human Resources professionals who manage the company’s leaves of absence).

While Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does place some restrictions on what medical-related inquiries an employer can make of its employees, guidance issued by the EEOC during the H1N1 flu outbreak is clear that an employer does not need to wait until an employee returning from high-risk travel develops symptoms to inquire about exposure to similar outbreaks such as COVID-19. State and local laws may further dictate what information may be requested from an employee in these situations.

If the potentially exposed employee reports having no symptoms and it has been more than 14 days since exposure or travel to the high-risk area:

  • The CDC does not recommend any special treatment of asymptomatic people outside the 14-day incubation period.
  • Because the CDC does not recommend testing, special monitoring or special management for people exposed to asymptomatic people, the employer need not take additional steps with respect to other employees.
  • The employer should still be careful to encourage good sanitary practices in the workforce.

If the potentially exposed employee reports having had no symptoms and it has been less than 14 days since the potential exposure or travel to the high-risk area:

  • The employee should be encouraged to self-monitor their temperature and contact their doctor if they develop any symptoms (e., fever, cough or difficulty breathing).
  • The employer should require the potentially exposed employee to remain at home for the duration of the incubation period.
  • If a telework situation is feasible, the employee may be permitted to work remotely during this time and should be paid for all time worked.
  • If no symptoms develop, the employer need not take additional steps with respect to other employees, but still should be careful to encourage good sanitary practices in the workforce.
  • If the employee develops symptoms, the employer should instruct the employee to stay at home and should follow the steps outlined for employees showing symptoms of COVID-19 (see below).

If the potentially exposed employee reports symptoms of coronavirus:

  • The employee should be instructed to stay away from the workplace.
  • The employee should see a medical professional immediately. The employer should not permit the employee to return to the workforce without a fitness-for-duty certification.
  • If the employee is found to have contracted COVID-19, the CDC and local health department should be contacted immediately, likely by the employee’s healthcare provider.
  • If the affected employee had contact with any other employee or worksite while ill, the employer should inform other potentially affected employees (taking care to keep the affected employee’s identity and medical information private to the extent possible) and ask those who have any symptoms to stay at home either on a leave basis or through telework until those employees receive a fitness-for-duty notice.
  • The employer should contact a hazmat company to disinfect the job site or workplace so that it may provide assurances to other asymptomatic employees that it is safe to return to work.

In taking the above actions, the employer must be careful to avoid discrimination against individuals who are perceived as having contracted COVID-19 or who may be from high-risk areas. Additionally, the employer must make sure to comply with the confidentiality restrictions imposed by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and similar state and local laws; in particular, the person who contracted coronavirus or symptoms should not be identified to other employees.

If we require an employee to obtain a fitness-for-duty certification before returning to work, do we have to pay for the employee’s out-of-pocket expenses?

Depending on the circumstances, testing and a fitness to return to work certification may be necessary, particularly for employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 and are exhibiting symptoms, or who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

That said, if the employer requires its employee to obtain a medical certification or test, state law may require the employer to reimburse the employee for these costs. In addition, for non-exempt employees, the employer may be required to compensate the employee for their time spent obtaining the certification. For certain workplace exposures (e.g., bloodborne pathogen exposure), the employer would be required to pay for the cost of testing under OSHA regulations. We recommend contacting counsel to discuss your particular situation and jurisdiction further.

In scenarios where the employer sends an employee for laboratory testing under state and federal legal authorities, the laboratory conducting the test may reveal the results directly to the employer in accordance with HIPAA. (See 45 C.F.R. § 164.512(b)(1)(v)).

Our retail business is struggling and now, with the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on supply chains, customer demand and employee availability can we implement salary reductions for our exempt employees to adjust for this downturn?

Yes, employers generally may prospectively reduce salaries for at-will, exempt employees during a business or economic slowdown, so long as the reduction is done for bona fide, long-term business reasons and not done on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. For employees who are under contract, the employer must review the terms of the agreement before modifying the employee’s compensation or other employment terms.

Many state and federal exemptions require employers to compensate employees on a salary basis, and require such employees to earn at least a threshold minimum salary. The threshold may vary depending on the state of employment. Employers should be cognizant of these requirements if considering to reduce salaried, exempt employee salaries, to ensure that otherwise-exempt employees remain exempt and continue to meet the minimum salary threshold applicable.

Any reduction in employee pay should be implemented in a non-discriminatory, even-handed way. Any substantial reduction in an employee’s compensation may be interpreted as constructive termination if the employee resigns as a result, and therefore employers should understand that such terminations may be interpreted as an involuntary employer-initiated termination for employment law purposes.

My employees are required to travel for work (both domestic and international) as part of their normal job duties, but many are expressing concern and reluctance to travel at this time. Can we require our employees to travel?

OSHA allows employees to refuse to travel if there is a known or realistic threat of danger to their health or safety, but general travel on airplanes and public transit to densely populated areas should not constitute such a danger. Employers can require employees to engage in ordinary business travel unless there is a known danger in sending the employees to specific locations. Employers should consult the CDC travel advisories to determine if this will be an issue.

  • As of March 1, 2020, the CDC’s Warning Level 3 list (avoid all nonessential travel) for coronavirus included South Korea, Italy, Iran and China; the State Department’s list is limited to China.
  • As of March 1, 2020, the CDC’s Alert Level 2 locations, for which enhanced precautions should be practiced, included Japan.

Please note, if employees come together to protest or refuse to engage in travel—or even if only one employee comes forward on behalf of their colleagues—their concerted efforts could be protected under the National Labor Relations Act. We recommend consulting with counsel in this event.

While employers may be permitted to require employees to travel under pertinent law, we should remain cognizant of employee morale and weigh temporary business hardship against potential harm to morale, retention and recruiting. If “business as usual” is not exactly palpably dangerous but still makes employees uncomfortable, consider seeking input from other managers or senior employees for ways to accommodate employees’ concerns while still maintaining productivity. Permitting employees to conduct certain business by videoconference or other remote method rather than requiring travel may be a temporary and effective compromise to permit employees to refrain from travel, while allowing most business to continue.

Can we institute a rule that prohibits employees from traveling outside of the country, or to affected areas?

No. As a general rule, employers cannot control an employee’s lawful, off-duty conduct, including elective travel. However, given the current circumstances, it would be reasonable to introduce a policy requiring employees to disclose what their travel plans are.

Many people book travel a long time in advance. If an employee has already booked travel to a known affected area and still intends to travel, remind the employee of the risks involved and your obligation to protect the health and safety of your employees. Ask the employee to keep the appropriate company contact (e.g., Human Resources) informed of any health concerns.

Ensure employees understand the policy in relation to pay if they do have to go into quarantine on their return from travel, and whether remote work is available for the employee.

We have an employee of Chinese descent (Employee A) who sits in a cubicle near other employees. A different employee (Employee B) has asked to move to a cubicle farther away from Employee A, citing concerns that Employee A’s family may visit from China and carry coronavirus with them. Should we agree to move Employee B?

Employers should be aware of possible biases and stereotypes that may arise in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. As conflict may arise, employees should be reminded of the company’s anti-discrimination policies, and the company should enforce the policy consistently.

The employer should not agree to move Employee B if the only basis for the request is that Employee A is Chinese.

If Employee B’s concerns are founded on a legitimate concern of exposure (e.g., Employee A’s disclosure that family has recently visited from China), then it is recommended that additional steps be taken to assess the situation and handle any actual, potential exposure accordingly. If there is a realistic concern about the spread of COVID-19 in your workplace, you may ask the potentially exposed employee(s) to stay home until the incubation period (according to the CDC) has passed. Please see our FAQ above regarding how to address employees who may have been exposed.

Is there any duty for an employer to report potential coronavirus cases?

Absent additional state legislation, existing state reporting requirements for infectious diseases apply to healthcare providers only and not to employers.

State health agencies and media outlets may seek voluntary information from larger employers about the number of employees infected. With the exception of employer-sponsored self-insured health benefit plans, the regulations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that protect individually identifiable health information do not apply to employers. However, employers should still exercise diligence in sharing information about specific employee cases, both internally and externally. For affected employers that wish to disclose information, such employers may consider providing aggregate counts in response to requests from state agencies or media outlets (e.g., 14 of our employees have been infected by coronavirus).

What can we do if our employee does not have any symptoms of illness, and our workplace has been symptom-free, but the employee has refused to come to work because of concerns related to coronavirus and being in large groups generally?

Employers should listen to employee concerns and, if they are genuine, explore alternative working arrangements with them. As discussed above, to the extent possible, employers should encourage flexible or remote work options, particularly for exempt employees. Where remote work is not an option, employees may be given the option to utilize their PTO or take an unpaid non-medical leave from the workplace.

However, if an employee refuses to work or to use these alternative options, and the employee has no signs of illness or respiratory distress, the employer will have to consider the proper response. Generally speaking, the employee should be told to report to work.

Employers should keep in mind that accommodations made for one employee may set a precedent regarding how other employees should be managed in similar situations.

How should we handle an increase in employee absences related to potential coronavirus illness or suspected illness?

To account for higher rates of short- and long-term absences from the workplace, employers may offer current employees additional work or overtime opportunities, or may consider retaining temporary workers in the interim. Employers who utilize temporary workers should understand that in many jurisdictions, the company may be considered a joint employer with the temporary services provider. We recommend contacting counsel to address joint employment considerations when contracting with a temporary services provider.

What is our obligation if an employee cannot come to work because schools are closed and they need to care for their children?

There is currently no federal law that provides protected time off from work for employees who are unable to obtain childcare, except as related to military active duty. State and local law in your jurisdiction may provide employees with some protected time off for this purpose. We recommend that employers consult with counsel to determine if local or state law may govern this issue.

Absent a legal requirement to do so, employers may consider providing employees with additional flexibility during this time, to permit employees to address emergency and unexpected events that affect the employee’s ability to secure child care. Such time off could be provided paid or unpaid.

Does an employer’s response to the virus implicate any privacy laws or regulations?

It might. Privacy rights are complicated matters for employers and you should consult a privacy lawyer to discuss those issues.