Q and A: Coronavirus and the Workplace

Posted by: Gail Cecchettini Whaley J.D. on Thursday, February 6, 2020

CEA has started receiving calls from employers regarding the coronavirus. What can they do if an employee has the virus? What about employees who travel to areas that are highly affected? What if our business operations are affected? These are just some of the questions employers are asking.

What is the Coronavirus?

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, is a new respiratory virus first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China — it has sickened more than 17,000 individuals. As of February 3, there are 11 confirmed cases in the United States, including cases in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Common signs and symptoms of this illness include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. In recently reported cases, symptoms have ranged in severity from mild illness to death.

The time from exposure to symptom onset ranges from two to 14 days. The virus can be spread from person-to-person, but it is unclear how easily 2019-nCoV is spreading between people at this time. There have been reported cases of the virus spreading from an infected person with no symptoms to others through close contact.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers the current risk of infection in the U.S. to be low, risk for infection is higher in health care settings such as hospitals and clinical laboratories.

How Do We Handle Business Travel?

If you do business in, travel to or have operations in China, issues may arise regarding how to handle work-related travel. The U.S. government has taken unprecedented steps with respect to travel in response to the growing public health threat posed by this new coronavirus both for individuals traveling to and individuals traveling from China.

Employers can stay up-to-date by reviewing the State Department travel advisories and the CDC travel information. Local public health departments, such as the San Francisco Department of Public Health, also provide information.

Avoid the spread of disinformation and the ramping up of fears by providing brief, factual updates using information from the CDC and State Department.

If your business is following public health guidance you will usually be protected from discrimination, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and privacy claims. Don't overreact, and consult legal counsel when necessary.

Let's look at the following two situations.

Can We Still Send Employees to China for Work?

CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to the People's Republic of China (this does not include the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, or the island of Taiwan).

Employers should heed these travel recommendations and not send workers to China on business. If an employer sends a worker to China on business it is potentially violating OSHA workplace safety requirements given that the U.S. is restricting travel. Under OSHA, employees may refuse to work when there is a reasonable belief that there is a risk of imminent death or serious injury.

However, this does not mean that employees cannot travel at all. Fear of being exposed by traveling to JFK or Vietnam, for example, would not be reasonable as there is no active travel alert for these areas. Exceptions for workers with compromised immune function or other physical limitations that create increased risk should be accommodated.

Follow CDC recommendations on business travel to China and also which groups are at greater risk. Make decisions based on public health and medical information.

What about Workers Returning to the U.S. from China?

Effective February 2, 2020, the U.S. government suspended entry of foreign nationals who have been in China within the past 14 days.

U.S. citizens, residents and their immediate family members who have been in Hubei province in the previous 14 days can be subject to up to 14 days of mandatory quarantine to ensure medical care and monitoring.

U.S. citizens who have been in other areas of mainland China will undergo proactive health screening at the airport upon entry. Symptomatic individuals may be subject to mandatory quarantine. If no symptoms are present, they will be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days with health monitoring to ensure they have not contracted the virus and do not pose a public health risk.

Given the new CDC and State Department travel restrictions, and the fact that the virus may be spread even when asymptomatic, it is likely reasonable for an employer to require any returning employee from mainland China to stay at home for up to 14 days.

  • Follow your leave policies and any applicable laws as to whether the absence is paid or unpaid.
  • Consider whether remote work will be allowed.
  • Follow rules regarding compensating exempt employees who have partial workweek absences.
  • Ask for a fitness for duty before any employee who contracted the virus can return to work.
  • Notify CDC and public health authorities if a worker contracted the virus and gather information on steps to disinfect the workplace as needed.
  • If the virus was contracted in connection with work, contact your workers' compensation carrier.
  • All flights from China will be required to go through 11 U.S. airports that can conduct screening. If employees incur additional travel expenses, reimburse them.

We Have a Lot of Workers from Asia or With Family Members from Asia. Should We Take Any Extra Steps to Keep Our Workforce Safe?

Do not show prejudice to people of Asian descent, because of fear of this new virus. Do not assume that someone of Asian descent is more likely to have 2019-nCoV. Either of these types of assumptions could result in a race or national origin discrimination claim.

What Other Steps Can I Take to Protect Workers? Is There a Vaccine?

There is currently no vaccine to prevent 2019-nCoV infection. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, as a reminder, CDC always recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Do not use facemasks. CDC does not recommend the use of facemasks for the general public to prevent the spread of 2019-nCoV.

Encourage employees to stay home when sick, as with the flu. California has a paid sick leave program for a reason — to allow employees to stay home and take care of themselves when ill. Remind employees of your policy, don't discourage them from using paid sick days, and don't count paid sick leave absences as a violation of your attendance policy (doing so violates California law).

If someone does come to work sick, an employer generally can send sick employees home. Employers have the ability to (and are in fact required to) keep their workplaces safe and healthy by sending apparently sick or contagious employees home or asking them not to report to work in the first place. Be consistent in your enforcement and use reasonable judgment as to the level of severity before you will send someone home.

If an employee feels better, but you are still concerned about contagion, consider whether remote work is a possibility.

What if Business is Disrupted and We Can't Afford to Stay At Full Operation?

Some companies with business in China may need to undergo a temporary shutdown; furlough; or reduction in hours. Consult with your trusted HR advisor or legal counsel before taking such steps.

Special Considerations in Health Care Settings

If you are an employer in a health care setting, review this Cal/OSHA interim guidance that provides employers and workers in health care settings with vital information for preventing exposure to the virus.


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