Best Practices in Responding to a Case of COVID-19 in the Workplace

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As Californians begin to return to the workplace, many employers are rightly concerned about the actions they should take if an employee tests positive for or displays symptoms of COVID-19. Here are five steps employers should take when responding to a potential or confirmed case of COVID-19 at work:

1. Review company policies.

If the organization has a pandemic response plan or infectious disease policy, now is the time to review it in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If no such policy exists, now is the time to create it. 

Since COVID-19 spreads easily and can be a threat to co-workers, employers are allowed to take an employee’s temperature and require the wearing of personal protection equipment — mask, gloves, etc. — in the workplace. Employees that have an allergy to any of these items — such as a latex allergy — must be furnished with a “reasonable accommodation” like working from home per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Employers may also require employees to take a virus test to determine if they have an active case of COVID-19.  However, employees cannot be required to take an antibody test to determine if they had COVID-19 in the past. In addition, employers are prohibited from asking employees about health conditions that may make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

2.  Gather information.

If an employee has symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19, the employer must act promptly to help prevent the spread of disease in the workplace. Your first step is to send the affected employee home. Then you will need to collect information from that employee to help identify all the areas in the workplace where he or she was physically present and all co-workers that the affected employee came into contact in the two weeks prior to exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. An employer may require the employee to self-quarantine at home for 14 days and contact a health care provider.

3.  Notify.

Guidance from the CDC recommends that employers inform employees of possible exposure to COVID-19 if a co-worker tests positive for the virus. Any vendors that routinely visit the workplace such as cleaning crews should also be notified as well as other third parties that were in physical contact with the affected employee.

However, employers must be careful about violating ADA or other medical privacy laws by maintaining the privacy of the affected individual’s medical information. Employers may not identify the affected worker unless that worker provides his or her permission.

In addition, employers may be required to report confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the workplace to government agencies like the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA), the CDC, plus state and local health departments.

4.  Sanitize.

Once an employer notifies its employees of a reported case of COVID-19, the organization should consider a thorough cleaning and sanitizing of the workplace, even if it means shutting down for a short period of time.

5.  Keep communicating.

Employers have a duty of care to protect its workforce, and during this process it is important to maintain honest and consistent communication with all affected persons. Let employees know the measures the organization has taken to sanitize the workplace and ongoing efforts to maintain a safe and clean work environment.

The Church Law Center of California advises religious and secular nonprofits on governance and risk management matters. To find out how we can assist your organization, call us today at (949) 892-1221 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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