Having an employee test positive for the COVID-19 virus has the potential to turn your business upside down. What are you supposed to do if you find yourself in that position?
Business leaders and experts weigh on what to do when an employee is diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Protect employees from coronavirus
Dan Bailey, president of WikiLawn, says when one of his employees tested positive for COVID-19, he immediately began searching for ways to protect his other employees and for ways to allow his ill employee to rest and recover.
As soon as Bailey's employee showed symptoms of COVID-19, Bailey sent the employee home. "[However], they were obviously contagious while still at work before we started work-from-home practices," he says, noting that he had to research what to do and has even spoken to legal counsel to ensure his business stayed on the right side of the ever-changing government guidance.
Of course, he immediately sent the sick employee home to recuperate. He also took extra measures to sanitize the office environment. After the employee was confirmed positive for the virus, Bailey started contact tracing.
Privacy issues, however, can make this process challenging. "You need to ask employees who they've [been in contact with], let them know they might be at risk, but don't identify the infected employee."
Employee privacy rights during the pandemic
As Matthew Stefany, senior associate attorney with Allen, Norton & Blue, explains the process, Bailey was right on track.
"If an employee [tests] positive for COVID-19 coronavirus, they should be instructed to stay home immediately for at least 14 days and told to consult their health care provider," says Stefany. After 14 days, "the employer can ask the employee to produce medical documentation certifying that the employee is fit to return to work."
In the meantime, the employee's workstation should be sanitized as should the entire workplace and should start contact tracing. The entire workforce should be notified that an employee has tested positive, but the identity of the employee(s) should be kept private in accordance with the American's with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Anyone who can work remotely, should.
"Without disclosing who has been diagnosed," Stefany says, "those employees who have had close contact and exposure to [the infected employee] should be requested to remain home and to contact a healthcare provider for further guidance."
How to notify the workforce about an infected coworker
There is no easy way to break the news to your workforce about this virus. "Employers should recognize that it's a sensitive situation," Stephany says. "I think people want honesty and to be kept informed. If you can have a direct conversation with employees, that would be preferable to a phone call or email. The important thing is to let these folks know as soon as possible."
Stephany also recommends you contact legal counsel right away. Guidance seems to change rapidly. "Things that were recommendations a week or two ago quickly become something everybody needs to be doing," Stephany says.
In the end, Bailey says your role as an employer is clear. "Help them get tested, let them work from home, and do everything in your power to prevent the disease from spreading."
For more specific information on how to prepare workplaces for COVID-19, read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) guidance booklet and contact your local health department.
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