Employers: Confused about how to handle COVID-19?

Employers: Confused about how to handle COVID-19?

By Christina M. Reger, Esq.

I have some answers for you.

In the past few days, my phone has lit up more than a casino slot machine. There is an overload of information out there, apologies for cancellations, concerns for safety, commands by government officials but not a whole lot of practical advice on how to handle your everyday workplace. OK so here goes:

Q: Can I tell my employees to stay home if they may have the COVID-19 or similar symptoms?

Yes, as employers you have a duty to keep your workplace and employees safe. Encouraging workers to stay home, go to their physician and get tested or sending workers home are all appropriate responses to employees who are or appear visibly sick.

If employees recently traveled out of the country to one of the known countries of concern, i.e. China, Italy, Spain, France, Japan, etc., employers may want to consider suggesting the employee stay home for 2 weeks.

Q: Can I ask my employees if they have COVID-19?

Employers should be mindful of HIPAA and other privacy laws that impact their ability to ask employees about their medical condition. If the employee volunteers such information, the employer still have an obligation to maintain the confidentiality of that information. Employer should put procedural safeguards in place to protect the identity of the individual that has or has been exposed to COVID-19.

However, as an employer, you also have an obligation to keep your workforce safe including informing employees of their possible exposure because employees have a right to know if there is a health risk in their workplace. Those employees then can and should conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure based on guidance from the CDC.

Q: My company is in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester or Delaware County, but I live in Montgomery County. Can I go into work?

There is currently no ban on travel. While many businesses, schools and governments facilities are closed in Montgomery County, there is not a state of emergency declared, and there have been no restrictions on individuals continuing to work. Although work from home is encouraged when available/feasible. For guidance issued by Montgomery County, click here.

Q: How else can I protect my employees?

The best way to reduce your risk of becoming infected with, or spreading, COVID-19 coronavirus is to practice good hygiene:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water is not available
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands
  • Try to stay away from people who are visibly sick
  • Everyone should always cover their coughs and sneezes using a tissue or the crook of their elbow; wash your hands after using a tissue to wipe your nose or mouth
  • People who are sick should stay home from work or school until they are well

If you have any of the following symptoms, stay home from work, contact your regular primary care provider, telemedicine or the ER and let them know if you have been around someone who had COVID-19 coronavirus:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing

Don’t attend events with crowds of people (greater than 100)

Public transportation will operate in Philadelphia, but it is recommended that you wash your hands after being on public transportation.

Some other sites also provide helpful information;

The Pennsylvania State site with updates can be accessed here.

The City of Philadelphia site here

These are just some quick answers to questions that I have been fielding. We will continue to post questions and answer and attempt to provide guidance for employers. Tread carefully when dealing with employees, mindful of privacy and discriminatory concerns. If you are unsure, contact your employment attorney.

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