March 5, 2020

By: Anne Baggott

The outbreak of a novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the World Health Organization’s name for the virus’ associated respiratory disease, is presenting a multitude of challenges for employers. Businesses in many industries are grappling with its impact, but industries that require significant travel, such as transportation and logistics companies, and those in healthcare are especially impacted.

Employers should take steps to prepare their workforce in the event the novel coronavirus continues to spread. Employers can help educate employees by directing them to reliable medical sources, such as the website for the Centers for Disease Control, for updates on preventing exposure and transmission.

Companies can help ensure a safe workplace by taking a few precautions. Encourage hand hygiene and coughing and sneezing etiquette. Employers can offer sanitizing wipes for employees to sanitize their workspaces, and they should ensure regular cleaning of commonly touched surfaces. In industries with a higher risk of infectious disease, companies should comply with OSHA regulations for maintaining a safe workplace. Where an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers must keep this information private to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Encourage employees to remain at home if they have symptoms of exposure.

Employers should also review existing policies and consider implementing new policies where necessary. Many companies have temporarily suspended international travel and U.S. domestic travel to areas where the novel coronavirus is confirmed to have spread, or barred nonessential travel entirely. Employers should review all telecommuting policies and facilitate remote work where possible.

Managers and human resource professionals should treat requests for paid time off, reasonable accommodation or leaves of absence as they would any other request. Avoid asking for medical information or requiring medical examinations unless there is a reasonable belief of a direct threat to the workplace, which is required under the ADA. Finally, requiring travel to high-risk areas could expose companies to liability under OSHA. If the employee refuses to travel due to fear of exposure, the company should carefully consider whether the concern is reasonable before taking disciplinary action for the refusal.

Contact Anne Baggott at (816) 931-2700 for more information.

This article was originally published in Missouri In-House Counsel.