Coronavirus: A reminder for employers to have contingency plans for health crises
Thursday, February 06, 2020
The recent outbreak of coronavirus in China reminds us that employers need to take certain actions to be prepared for public health crises in general. This article outlines some of the basic steps that employers can take now to get ready for a rapid spread of flu, coronavirus or some other pandemic threat.
Safety Policies and Practices
You should strive to keep your safety policies and practices up to date. Consider what policies or practices you can adopt now that may come into play if there is a pandemic or major outbreak. Employee education is an important part of every safety program. A few basic tips are included in the next section.
The www.pandemicflu.gov website provides information which may be used to educate employees. Most experts recommend that employers educate employees about misconceptions, as well as the signs of the flu and other contagious diseases, how to avoid them, and what to do if they become sick.
One of the key instructions is that individual employees stay home when they are sick, at least for a reasonable period after they cease to have a fever or other symptoms. The length of that period may vary with the employee’s specific illness.
At a minimum, employers should also instruct workers to follow established safety practices, including but not limited to:
- Washing their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoiding touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
- Covering their cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.
Surgical masks have not been proven to definitively protect against every contagion. However, masks prevent a person from unconsciously touching their eyes, nose and mouth, so they may offer a measure of protection.
Workplace Spread Prevention
In addition to the basic precautions outlined previously, you should consider “social distancing,” which is a fancy term for making arrangements to separate employees as much as possible during day-to-day business. Social distancing may include moving away from carrels and combined workrooms and to also encourage some degree of remote work.
You should track the CDC and other updates on safe travel and, if a disease begins to aggressively spread and worsen, you should actively seek to limit travel, as well as provide guidance as how to travel in a safe fashion.
For example, the current advice with respect to coronavirus is that individuals returning from China should be “self-quarantined” for 14 days after their return. That means that they should not be allowed to return to the workplace for that period as well.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) limits what medical inquiries an employer can lawfully make of its employees. However, the EEOC encourages employers to survey their employees to determine who would be affected by school closings and by an absence of public transportation (or an unwillingness to send kids to school or to use public transportation). The EEOC has proposed a form for this purpose on its website that complies with the ADA’s restrictions.
Dealing with Employee Inquiries
When there is a threat of a pandemic or if an employee contracts a contagious disease, you should provide your managers with guidelines and a basic script or form letter to use to make sure they lawfully communicate with both the affected employee(s) and their co-workers.
In the event of an outbreak, try to rely more on remote work. Now is a good time to make sure that you have rules and procedures in place to ensure that hourly workers maintain accurate time records while working from home. You also need to carefully scrutinize any additional procedures required to strictly limit the amount of material on the web, and otherwise protect confidentiality and attorney-client privilege.
You need to devote special attention to the security of laptops and memory sticks or portable hard drives, which may contain an enormous amount of confidential and client information. In addition to the wage/hour and security concerns, you need to investigate what additional company or employee hardware and software might be required to utilize staff members working in their homes.
A comprehensive written telecommuting policy or individual agreement is helpful to confirm all of the legal parameters and logistics of a telecommuting arrangement.
You need to determine how you would maintain your network and phone systems if it were difficult or impossible to reach the office.
Healthy people are less likely to succumb to certain disease — or at least the consequences of contracting them can be reduced by being in good health. Therefore, you should emphasize to employees (and their families) that it is essential to maintain good health through your normal wellness programs.
Review the extent to which your insurance carrier will pay for vaccines that are developed to prevent or limit the spread of the flu or other contagious diseases and encourage employees to take advantage of the vaccines that are offered. To the extent possible, relay educational information to employees about good health practices and available preventive strategies.
Depending on your industry, location or other factors, you may want to consider stockpiling certain items, such as Tamiflu or similar medicines, protective masks, disposable respirators, and other PPE.
Absenteeism, Leave, Loans, Short-term Disability and Other Policies.
You will need to review all company policies and procedures that may govern in a pandemic situation.
For example, what do your policies say about absenteeism, short-term disability or wage or salary continuation, pay advances and loans in the event that work is disrupted? How would application of these policies affect your business in the event that you experience high levels of absenteeism?
You should also advise employees to learn about home emergency preparation, including stockpiling appropriate amounts of food, water, medicine, cash, and necessary supplies. Much information is available on the Internet about such emergency preparation from government agencies and civil defense groups.
Employers should anticipate the effects of possible outbreaks of flu, coronavirus or other public health threats on their workplaces. By taking some or all of the steps outlined in this article, employers can minimize the disruption of their workplaces and the effect on employees of such public health situations.
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