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Communicable Disease and Employer Responsibility

The outbreak of the coronavirus has caused fear throughout the world. Like everyone else, employers are concerned that coronavirus may significantly impact the economy. Companies are reviewing what they need to do to protect their workforce and their business in the face of this threat. In fact, employers already have duties regarding handling of communicable diseases, but the threat of the coronavirus has heightened the need to prepare. Employers need to plan how they will handle all communicable diseases, including the coronavirus.

As an employer, you have an obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to maintain a safe workplace. This includes taking reasonable measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, whether that disease is influenza or the coronavirus. Employers should first adopt a communicable disease policy in order to clearly define workplace standards and to prevent the spread of disease among their employees. Considerations may include:

  • Requiring employees to stay home if they suspect or know they have a communicable disease.
  • Encouraging proper hygiene in the workplace.
  • Discouraging employees from entering or using the workspace of a co-worker who is ill.
  • Disinfecting phones, desks, keyboards and other work tools.
  • Notifying a supervisor if a co-worker is displaying symptoms of a communicable disease.

Employees who exhibit symptoms of a communicable disease should be required to work from home or use leave. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that sending home an employee who displays symptoms of contagious illness does not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act because the illness may be diagnosed as mild, which would not meet the definition of a disability under the ADA. The EEOC also has stated that employees with disabilities that put them at high risk for complications of pandemic influenza may request telework as a reasonable accommodation to reduce their chances of infection during a pandemic. Employers should be clear in their policy that employees who have symptoms of potentially contagious diseases must not report to work while they are sick.

Second, employers should establish training and rules for hygiene in the workplace. All employers, regardless of their size or industry, should do basic things to prevent the outbreak of contagious diseases such as making tissues and antibacterial soap available to employees, encouraging hand washing, disinfecting the workplace, offering yearly flu shots and urging employees to get immunizations. Other steps can be taken as well, ranging from discouraging handshakes or other person-to-person contact and supporting employees in this choice through signage to customers.

Employers who take these steps now can be prepared to protect their workforce and business against the spread of communicable diseases.

March 05, 2020